Google Warns Of “New Reality” As Search Engine Stumbles (UPDATE)

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a comment from a Google spokesperson. The quote is appended at the end. 

Google’s SVP overseeing Search, Prabhakar Raghavan, recently warned employees that the company’s search division faces a “new operating reality” with fewer resources, according to a CNBC report.

The warning comes amid concerns over softening revenue and user engagement metrics for Google’s core search product. Recent quarters have seen weaker-than-expected growth in search queries and engagement.

This raises questions for SEO professionals and website owners about how Google changes could impact their strategies and online visibility.

Google’s Warning To Employees

In an all-hands meeting last month, Raghavan, who oversees Google’s Search, Ads, Maps, and Commerce divisions, acknowledged that the industry has shifted from the tech giant’s earlier dominance.

Raghavan reportedly told a gathering of over 25,000 employees:

“I think we can agree that things are not like they were 15-20 years ago, things have changed.”

Raghavan cited heightened competition and a more challenging regulatory environment as factors necessitating Google’s adaptability without explicitly naming rivals. However, the company faces increasing pressure from Microsoft and OpenAI in the burgeoning field of generative artificial intelligence.

He continued:

“People come to us because we are trusted. They may have a new gizmo out there that people like to play with, but they still come to Google to verify what they see there because it is the trusted source, and it becomes more critical in this era of generative AI.”

In a move to accelerate the company’s responsiveness, Raghavan revealed that he plans to shorten project deadlines for his direct reports, stating:

“There is something to be learned from that faster-twitch, shorter wavelength execution.”

Google Search: From Ideals to Revenue Machine?

Some critics argue that Google’s current search struggles stem from misguided priorities and leadership missteps, not just external market forces.

In an opinion piece, industry analyst Edward Zitron paints a different picture of what ails Google’s search engine.

He believes the company consciously degraded its flagship product to boost revenue under former ad executive Raghavan.

Citing internal Google emails from 2019, Zitron reports that Raghavan, then head of Ads, led a “Code Yellow” emergency mobilization after Search revenues lagged expectations.

In response, Zitron alleges Google rolled back key quality improvements to inflate engagement metrics – including boosting sites previously downranked for spamming tactics.

Zitron wrote:

“The emails … tell a dramatic story about how Google’s finance and advertising teams, led by Raghavan with the blessing of CEO Sundar Pichai, actively worked to make Google worse to make the company more money.”

Zitron depicts this shift as abandoning ethical principles, where the leadership team disregarded Google’s original mission of providing superior search results.

He argues it set the stage for Raghavan’s subsequent promotion to SVP of Search in 2020 – over the objections of veteran search chief Ben Gomes, who was reassigned after nearly 20 years improving the product.

Zitron’s report states:

“Gomes, who was a critical part of the original team that made Google Search work… was chased out by a growth-hungry managerial type led by Prabhakar Raghavan, a management consultant wearing an engineer costume.”

Under Raghavan’s tenure, Zitron claims the search engine has become increasingly “less reliable,” “less transparent,” and overrun with low-quality content optimized purely to rank well rather than meet user needs.

What Does This Mean For SEO Professionals & Site Owners?

For website owners and SEO professionals who closely follow Google’s every move, the tensions brewing within the company point to the ongoing challenge of optimizing for Google’s shifting search priorities.

Sudden product changes could disrupt current SEO strategies, whether driven by immediate financial goals or a philosophical change.

Raghavan’s statement about embracing a “new operating reality” with shorter timelines suggests that Google Search may start updating more frequently.

The intense scrutiny on Google highlights the high stakes involved in any significant overhaul of its algorithms and ranking systems.

As Google evolves its products, how the company balances innovation with maintaining its standards could shape the future of search.

Google Responds

Google has addressed the claims made in Zitron’s article with the following quote sent to Search Engine Journal:

On the March 2019 core update claim in the piece: This is baseless speculation. The March 2019 core update was designed to improve the quality of our search results, as all core updates are designed to do. It is incorrect to say it rolled back our quality or our anti-spam protections, which we’ve developed over many years and continue to improve upon.

As we have stated definitively: the organic results you see in Search are not affected by our ads systems.

Relevant testimony from the DOJ trial that puts these misleading claims into context:

From Ben Gomes’ testimony:

“From my perspective, queries had always been a tricky way to measure growth, because there are changes you can make that actually reduce the number of queries but are good for users. So I never liked the notion of pure queries as a growth metric, but we also needed to agree on, like, what was the right growth metric. And so this was a discussion about exactly what could be a good metric.”

“I think this metric of using just queries is not one that optimizes appropriately… Ads also wants users for the long run, they also want long term business.”

“We were putting a significant effort into ideas that we thought would increase the amount — satisfy more user needs and increase the amount of usage we had in search. Those two things are not necessarily at odds.”

“We have no way of growing queries directly unless we do a better job with search.”

“I was proposing things we would never do, like turning off spell correction. I could never imagine us doing that.”

From Jerry Dischler’s testimony:

Q: Do agree that the search team and the ads team are working together to accelerate monetization velocity, correct?

A: “The ads team would be accelerating monetization velocity. The search team is only accelerating monetization velocity to the extent that they tell the ads team about what new research they’re building.”

Q: …by “church and state separation,” can you just further describe what that means? A: “What I mean is that the organic team does not take data from the ads team in order to affect its ranking and affect its result. The organic team operates independently.”

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