RIP Google, a ‘Search Engine’ from 1998-2018

History

Back in the late 90’s, we had a choice of search engines: Altavista, Infoseek, Lycos, Dogpile and probably others I have long since forgotten.

Then, with little warning or fanfare, a new competitor, “Google” showed up, offering far better search results, that initially baffled SEOs (an industry that was yet to be named at the time) as to how to optimize for them.

Google’s 1998 offices…

One by one, each and every competitor fell by the wayside, and we ended up in the situation we have today, where about 94% of web search traffic originates from Google, and the remaining 6% is split up between Bing and a few minor or local players.

How Webmasters Helped Kill Search Traffic

Once it became apparent that acquiring traffic would primarily be through Google’s search engine, the webmaster community started optimizing their websites to efficiently serve their content to the giant, in order to acquire additional traffic.

This traffic is typically monetized, often using ads, and countless businesses have been born in the last 15 years – employing millions globally.  Over time, as search grew more complex webmasters were given more and more tools to provide their data to Google, in ever more structured ways.

As Webmasters were by this point, already addicted to the free traffic from Google, they continued to improve the serving of their data to search, in these ever more efficient ways.

The very process of providing this data, for free in exchange for traffic,  enabled Google to morph from the Search Engine they were, into a new product: an Answer Engine.

Google “Puts it Users First” with Zero Result SERPs

From March 2018, Google started removing search results from certain queries where they specifically feel they can answer a consumers query, without sending that traffic to a third party website.

Right now, example queries that no longer return real results include (but may not be limited to):

Calculations:

The Time in:

Distance:

and interestingly, while these searches don’t trigger third party organic results, they DO trigger ads:

This has been done to improve the speed of results returned to the users, as confirmed in this conversation with Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan:

Im a User, I just wanted that Result, so Whats the Problem?

Lots of people got back to me over the past couple of days on twitter to say exactly that – and there is an undeniable logic in the argument:  if a user is searching for the time in a different city, why not just show them the time?

The problem is, many companies will go out of business off the back of this change.  Right now, the domains that rank for times, dates, calculations and so on, will lose almost 100% of their organic traffic overnight.

These companies exist by way of selling advertising, and attracting free traffic by providing information thats useful to the consumer.  Its possible, if not likely that tens of thousands of jobs might be put at risk by this seemingly minor improvement to usability on Google.

The ones that look most at risk include:

https://www.timeanddate.com
https://time.is
https://www.worldtimeserver.com
https://www.rapidtables.com
https://www.unitconverters.net
www.metric-conversions.org
https://www.thecalculatorsite.com
https://www.metric-conversions.org
… and many thousands more

Over the coming weeks and months it will be interesting to see the impact on these individual domains.

RIP Google Search, Long Live Google Answer Engine?

These results are not typical of a search engine, they are however typical of an answer engine. 

This has of course been tried before, and already exists in the shape of Wolfram Alpha – which unsurprisingly does an excellent job of answering all these questions.

If the integration ends here, with just these time, date and units of measurement calculations, then the fallout will be limited to just the type of company listed above.

I put forward though, that this isn’t likely:  Google have a habit of developing features they deem to be useful to the user, so what’s next?  Sports Scores?  The Weather? Directions?  Maps?  You have to wonder if eventually, the game plan is for Google to serve their perceived answers to questions universally,  rather than links to other websites.

Imagine a world where you don’t “Google” stuff for links, rather you “Google” something to buy it directly from Google,  they’ve already aggressively tried this in the Financial marketplace, and recent developments certainly point towards them trying it increasingly in Travel.  That is just of course just two (albeit very large) industries, but where will this end?

The reality is, there are countless verticals and jobs that could be disrupted significantly if Google decide to just put data points up instead of search results.  

Can we Do Anything to Stop This?

While in reality the answer is “no”, we can at the very least voice our disapproval to Google.  If you value traffic from Google, voice your opinions directly on twitter to @searchliaison or just RT the message below:

 

HAVE YOUR SAY BELOW: AM I TALKING RUBBISH?
ARE YOU ALSO CONCERNED ABOUT GOOGLE?
LEAVE A COMMENT!

 

 

UPDATE:  Danny Sullivan has responded on Twitter about Google’s intention to look at this treatment (thanks Danny, appreciated!):

 

32 thoughts on “RIP Google, a ‘Search Engine’ from 1998-2018”

  1. I agree with you Martin, but I’m afraid that SEOs may be the only searchers that care about this.

  2. I’m really surprised you’re so surprised by this. Google has been marching toward one-answer SERPs for at least a decade, if not its entire existence.

    You know what else can tell me the time, aside from Google? My computer. My cable box. My phone. My microwave. My oven. My digital clock. My video game consoles. My car. And so on. I have more things telling me the time than I could ever reasonably need. Must be because people want to know what time it is. 🙂

    I’m not saying there aren’t real reasons to be concerned about Google / search, but in this case? Seems a major overreaction to a nothing burger.

  3. Thanks for the comment Danny, greatly appreciated!

    I do respectfully disagree though that its a nothingburger – this is to my knowledge the first example of Google specifically not serving search results at all, and serving their interpretation of the answer.

    The verticals at play right now, have no direct impact over me, and I absolutely concede that 99% of the time, the user experience is as good if not better, for these specific results. BUT: this will proliferate, this will cause damage and harm across multiple industries if left unchecked.

    Thats the problem, NOT the fact that the time now doesnt return third party results 🙂

  4. “this is to my knowledge the first example of Google specifically not serving search results at all, and serving their interpretation of the answer.”

    Well… that is if you only look at the Google.com website. Every other part of their business is focused around Google Assistant which does exactly that.

    Besides the point though – you list off a series of domains that will be affected. I did a spot check of them and many of them are just throw away sites built by small teams. Time and Date is a team of 20 people.

    From them: “According to statistics from Alexa, Quantcast, and Compete, timeanddate.com is the biggest time zone-related website in the world, by a good margin.”

    Chances are they are the biggest of the list and they employ a total of 20 people.

    There are no thousands involved with this. Most of these sites are mostly automatic and don’t actually benefit users in any way. Basically I’m saying I disagree with the scale. Your notes on it affecting jobs is probably true, I just don’t think it’s as many.

    My next question is how much traffic did these sites actually get from Google? Since Google has had the answer cards for ages it must be tiny scraps that click through. Advertising revenue is TINY as a publisher and you need to have a highely valueable user group to be worth getting paid reasonable rates for advertising, this is not sustainable for big teams and only makes sense for small companies with a couple of people good at automating things.

    Defending businesses just because they supply jobs doesn’t really help anything here.

    If you really want to fight this I would come up with reasons why websites other than Google could supply BETTER service for users than Google. Than you can get the users on your side and not just SEO’s who got lucky enough to get a site to the top for single answer quieries.

    Also, for the SEO’s out there – remember it’s about finding the RIGHT people, not just showing up for quiries that get you an insane amount of impressions. You need conversions.

    In the end – this is not a death gnull. SEO’s have a habit of overreacting to SERP changes and I think this is another one of those overreactions.

    As a final note when you bring up what Google is doing in finance and travel is very true but it is a completely different thing: websites for those kinds of terms CAN offer a better service than Google. In the terms we are talking about here they can not.

  5. Hey Kole, thanks for the super comment – greatly appreciated!

    In response to your (valid) points:

    Q: “Well… that is if you only look at the Google.com website. Every other part of their business is focused around Google Assistant which does exactly that.”

    A: Absolutely true, no arguments. When writing the piece I was going to compare this to Alexa (assistant) rather than Google search, your argument here is equitable to that – BUT its not the same thing, Google exist off the back of their search engine, this looks like stepping away from that core product and into assistants more squarely.

    Q: “Besides the point though – you list off a series of domains that will be affected. I did a spot check of them and many of them are just throw away sites built by small teams. Time and Date is a team of 20 people.”

    A: Sure, maybe a hundred people might be affected by those domains, but I didnt spot check the rest of the serps affected, furthermore, I guarantee that Weather.com, ESPN.com, Cricinfo.com, CBSi.com all employ hundreds OR thousands each, and will be next in line with further rollouts.

    Q: “If you really want to fight this I would come up with reasons why websites other than Google could supply BETTER service for users than Google.”
    A: Absolutely agreed.

    Q: “As a final note when you bring up what Google is doing in finance and travel is very true but it is a completely different thing: websites for those kinds of terms CAN offer a better service than Google. In the terms we are talking about here they can not.”

    A: I would have fully agreed with this statement last week, however, as I used to own the landing page environment at the largest OTA’s in the US, I absolutely know the new release of flight search will interfere with their businesses to a serious extent… Even in environments where its not a simple answer like the time, I predict they’ll become increasingly aggressive at taking major verticals traffic away.

    Thanks again for the comment!
    Martin

  6. Hi Martin, as I postulated a few years back Google isn’t an “Answer Engine” but a task completion engine. It exists to help a user complete a single task, conveniently enough for Google they can scrape the web or directly pull that answer at an ever-increasing rate, which means we don’t need websites, we just need Google. To combat this in 2012 I started using Bing and DuckDuckGo almost exclusively for my personal searches. I would encourage other webmasters and SEOs to do the same thing. It might be futile, but it might at least slow down the pursuit a year or two.

  7. Ok Google, what’s the time?

    Google: I don’t know I’m a Search Engine

    Now you’re being silly!

    Google: Time is a relative unit of measurement
    Would you like to buy a watch so you don’t need to ask me stupid questions which will save you time?

    Uh oh!

  8. The business models that rely on these types of answers were on borrowed time. If they didn’t see this coming then I don’t know what to say.

    The stuff that shows up underneath these features are essentially noise. And lets be fair, these features are already on the SERP. This is just removing the noise and putting it one click away for anyone who might want to double check whether Google had the time right in Australia.

    Has anyone determined what the CTR is for organic results on calculation queries? I’m guessing it’s not good.

    This is about convenience and simplicity. I mean, are we irate that we don’t get to trudge to the Blockbuster down the street and pick up our movies? Or even get them in the mail? Should we boycott streaming services? I get that it’s different to a certain degree but … the fact is that reducing friction for users is good business.

    There are many other things that are much more troubling. For instance, why doesn’t Google want to enable the carousel snippet for category based eCommerce pages? If I search for wooden barstools wouldn’t a carousel snippet with the actual products be good for users?

    Yet, Google can’t seem to get that on the roadmap because …. well, there’s that shopping unit and they wouldn’t want to distract away from that would they?

    Or about how Google expands their definition of terms that deserve the shopping unit during Q4. I get it, they feel like there’s more multi-intent during that time but … the terms where it appears is a REAL stretch.

    Not to mention the honest to god abuses, for which I can’t state publicly but have been going on for over two years in a specific vertical.

    The fact is sometimes Google takes away, but they also give if you know where to look. Didn’t the industry lose their mind when knowledge panels came out? But … we adapt and if you pay attention you figure out how to take advantage.

    The move to answers for voice/assistant search is driving a lot of this and because of that there’s an enormous opportunity, vastly overshadowing this type of interaction.

    Arguing for friction, complexity and outdated business models … seems like wasted energy. Just like driving down to Blockbuster was wasted energy.

  9. I think Martin is simply trying to articulate the SEO version of “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

  10. Martin this is a life saver. First of all, my partner is a smart man and he is an important person because his family is of historical and current relevance. His personal history and his heritage are combined now in ways that make him very unlike the person they knew when he went away from Cambridge. He has been treated unethically by his families publishers and those who have published expertly on his modern and historic art war and manufacturing heritages. Historians are not accurate in far too many of the categories and human people living and dead to be comfortable with my partner since we have been working on his heritage and seeing that Wikipedia has more accuracy if one can find it before pieces of it get shifted around or parsed or categorized to another place. The terrifying thing for me personally is that before I knew how to dig into Wikipedia’s edit history and sandboxes and the little scripts people write to counter some nasty subversive editor poaching tools I have seen unleashed over there. Wow! I might not recognize what I see if it weren’t for the writing style being so close to a couple of our publishers. It only took a little digging to find that same two person style commenting from IPs and the bot on Twitter that posts the information every time a university IP edits in Wikipedia. Wow. Their universities were where they came from. I have no idea what to do about that because they have scared me and bullied me so often. They are really important for so many transactions that are not in common with publishers at all. They are so deft at burying all the public information that may get served up in some lucky string of search terms. That’s my extra special problem. I know many people who are facing terrorizing uncertainty from needing to research online. I risk a miscalculation in search results or in titles and headers. People are very mean to me if I look a fact and ask if anyone knew about it when they look it up and see something different. Most often when it is different no one tells me. They just bring it up later after I figure nothing was seen. I have so learn that close household members stopped caring. They only have time for a glance. My poor partner is gullible. He was raised among Cambridge scholars in the 50s and 60s. He has the knack of making decisions to accept the most predatory of tools from 3rd parties. He was a surrealist and classics immersed professor for a long time. Surrealism and threats from two top presses publishing presidents and managing editors do not make forngood search results and he has a heritage of getting absorbed and collecting minutia. This google empty sheets with a quick answer would sound great to him and he can fill in any gaps and sound very authoritative with something that might not be true. He is still gullible and bullied. Given the history of special access his family publishers have outside of their publishing subsidiaries to levels of top authority in data analytics groups that have been under fire for monopolizing the industry through the decades, there isn’t an easy way to think about this with so much public but drowned information. I’m not information though I am a disabled woman who lives a direct descendant of one of the most well known scientist and he cannot defend that heritage anymore. He shrugs it off. Social media is relentless. The most objectionable problem I have just had another repercussion and my partner isn’t able to follow along this maze.

    I have keratoconus. I’ve always herd it is an orphan disease with an occursnce of 1 in 200o. Common figure. There was one time a long while ago when that number changed to 1 in 200 people. Just a couple of days ago I went to grab the statistic from Google to see if they changed their stuff. There was the blue green bordered square with a couple of basic function to get on to a new search and what not. It said Rare with an occurrence of 1 in 200,000. We discussed it and he looked at it. Because of my unique situation this sort of number shift makes me scared for the people with keratoconus? I would hate for that to be a real number. I would hate for it to be wrong information. Rarity like that can influence the behaviors of people disabled individuals need to rely on firbstabilty and fairness. I read this article and I am nervous. I am just putting my details together and at any time I could lose data. But I need to respond to this as well. I need to meet people like the 20 person Group time and date mentioned above to let me know how this will be for them too. I don’t want anyone with a business that can help me lower my privacy risks and raise my sense of well-being. It’s not easy to be in a huge media ocean. I wanted to show you this huge discrepancy on the SERPs and quickly settle the consumer and social ramifications. It has been over two days and already it has been edited to say Keratoconus Rare. 200,000 cases per year. This inaccuracy Was bone chilling. My partner is now confused. He isn’t suportive of me because he doesn’t see the relevance in it. We have too much interference from outside Google but this is when I need a friend and it will be hard to get one. No one believes about my eyes. I didn’t plan on being emotional and I am unhappy with this note but I cannot edit this and polish it up at all. He has an uncle who’s body has been in a Spain since 1936 and we popularized him to help Spain count their dead accurately. It caused a lot of problems and ended in my Facebook profile being under the jurisdiction of Ireland while FB was dealing with legal problems of privacy issues. My partner and I had no idea because of what was happening to our systems remotely. Misinformation was also sending people around us into histrionics at times and we were unaware. It isn’t much better when you know it is a false answer. Someone will get mistreated for being wrong. I can’t find a statistic on my eye condition. If my eye condition isn’t as rare as they claim then messing with our eyes with endless RPG and video games and YouTubing and all the stuff they like to do in publishing as welcome insiders might not be harmless. It is really really damaging and people have neglected their children and worse being absorbed in simulations. But they want to have an answer to a vital piece of scientific information on one square spot on Google? They price for our eyes might not be affordable yet. This question is a labyrinthine hothouse of ethics and eyes need to be factored in. And my partner needs to be factored in. Both my partner’s family publishers in the UK and US have interests in three or more countries and they have involvement across departments in Google. I don’t know what to do but when I hear this I am very fearful. I don’t know where to turn if we allow this ongoing lack of transparency into this search engine.

  11. Isn’t this just the free market at work?

    “Does Ford not realize that hundreds if not thousands of coachmen will be put out of business if the Model T occupies the road rather than the horse-drawn carriage?”

    “But what will the scribes do now that this new-fangled printing press is taking their jobs?”

    “E-Books? But what about the publishing companies!?”

    It’s only a bad thing for the person who’s being beat. I get where you’re going with it, and I agree that it has the potential to be truly revolutionary, but as it stands I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    The bright and enterprising people at the companies that get their traffic taken away will find ways to be bright and enterprising, and I’m going to benefit along with the rest of the civilized world.

  12. Do we honestly care about thecalculatorsite.com? Would consumers rather go there than just get an instant answer on a single app? Of course not. I support Google adding functionality to improve my own production and efficiency, as well as everyone else’s. And as far as serving other websites’ content without sending them traffic, that’s good too. The publishers are happy with whatever fringe benefits go with that and if not they can prevent it.

  13. This isn’t really as much a problem as AMP. Ever since Google started hosting actual web content on its servers and removing ads, I’ve noticed paywalls being put up at the New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, and more. Google is siphoning ad revenue from these businesses, which, in turn, forces them to stop providing free content. The internet used to provide free information, and Google is rapidly choking those organizations that provide it. That’s trickling down and affecting not only those organizations, but the people using their sites who now have to pay to get answers to much more complicated questions that can’t be answered by their microwave.

  14. This might be either the start of a snowball or just one more experiment.

    If it is the first, do you imagine a world where only a few e-commerce sites exists and the rest died in the way because of no traffic? A world where you have to buy in Amazon or Google? Is this a free market or a duopoly?
    If we ask the question when this already a reality, it will be too late to change the answer.

  15. I don’t make a living off Internet advertising so I like the idea. Why send you to some spam laden “website” if your answer can be retrieved without sponsoring some other advertising based domains.

  16. Totally fair Nate – and its a perfectly valid argument.

    My counterpoint though would be: thousands of businesses exist simply to provide information and data to users on the internet. While this doesn’t necessarily mean massive job losses right now, if Google decide to roll this out into other verticals, it very well could.

    Ultimately, if Google focus on answering everything they possibly can, then the internet as a whole suffers radically.

    But yes: as a user, these changes are of very little concern 🙂

  17. Don’t totally agree with this bit Dev: “The publishers are happy with whatever fringe benefits go with that and if not they can prevent it.” Sure – they can deindex their site entirely, but to what end? That would simply accelerate the situation Im guessing we’ll be in within a couple of years – with little traffic going to third parties.

  18. Google is stuck between a rock and a hard place, on one hand it is making sure the user get results quickly for simple things like weather/time/sports results, which is all well and good but on the other hand, companies which relied on traffic through google is suffering. And to be honest, as a user all we care about is getting the result asap, I don’t want to click on another link to get to an weather website which takes 5 seconds to load, I need that answer now! (lack of patience is so real)

    Rather than trusting the site which is #1 in SERP to perform well and satisfy user needs, I can see why Google would implement this as their solution.

    for example, if I search for “GSW vs” I can see the score in each period and amount of time left, which is basically all a user care about, it took 0.4 sec to return that result, if I wanted the same information from NBA or ESPN, it will take around 35 seconds, this difference is massive and from a user point of view, definitely a better experience.

  19. Google essentially wants dibs on traffic, and Google can certainly compromise to the simple-answer-type searches if they add a breadcrumb “Show All Results” link below the simple answer if we actually were wanting the outside answers… and if industries are dependent upon the traffic from such it’s more of an issue of monopoly than of a loss of functionality and thus other industries will adapt if there doesn’t develop a resulting legal course against the monopoly Google already has. #ShowAllResults

  20. Hi Martin. This is a great article. I own one of the websites in your list, and I have indeed been impacted by this. I do worry, as a small business, what developments they may make next – more calculators in the vein of their loan, mortgage calculators? In terms of competition, no-one can compete with them and they seem to be able to do what they want. It’s incredibly dispiriting.

  21. Dev, a lot of people DO care about my website, Dev (people write to me regularly about it). And I’ve worked hard on it for over 15 years. I’ve been impacted many times by search engine changes over the years, and I’ve diversified. People who find my site return because they appreciate it. It’s finding it in the first place that’s important. And so is encouraging small business and entrepreneurship.

  22. Geez, I swear like 80% of the people who left comments here totally missed what you were saying, Martin. Anyway, I got it and I support your motion.

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