Google search result quality getting worse due to ‘SEO spam’: study

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By Dan Sears

The quality of Google’s search engine results has “gotten worse” due to rampant spam, according to a study out of Germany.

The findings were based on a year-long analysis of 7,392 product review queries — such as “best headphones” and “best alphabet toys” — on Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo, according to experts at Leipzig University, Bauhaus-University Weimar and the Center for Scalable Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence.

“We find that search engines do intervene and that ranking updates, especially from Google, have a temporary positive effect, though search engines seem to lose the cat-and-mouse game that is SEO spam,” the study said.

The experts said product reviews were an ideal test because they are “particularly vulnerable to affiliate marketing due to its inherent conflict of interest between users, search providers, and content providers.”

The analysis revealed that Google and the other search engines have “significant problems with highly optimized (affiliate) content” that draws attention from unsuspecting users despite its lower quality. Spam results were more common in the search engines than baseline trends for the broader internet.

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Google
Google has touted its effort to crack down on spam. PixieMe – stock.adobe.com

While Google “improved to some extent” during the course of the study, the researchers said they “can still find several spam domains and also see an overall downwards trend in text quality in all three search engines.”

“We also notice the line between benign content and spam in the form of content and link farms becomes increasingly blurry—a situation that will surely worsen in the wake of generative AI,” the researchers said.

404 Media was first to report on the study.

A Google spokesperson pushed back on the study’s findings.

“This particular study looked narrowly at product review content, and it doesn’t reflect the overall quality and helpfulness of Search for the billions of queries we see every day,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“We’ve launched specific improvements to address these issues – and the study itself points out that Google has improved over the past year and is performing better than other search engines,” the statement added. “More broadly, numerous third parties have measured search engine results for other types of queries and found Google to be of significantly higher quality than the rest.” 

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Microsoft and DuckDuckGo did not immediately return requests for comment.

Google highlighted its efforts to crack down on spam in search results in a blog post last February – though it also defended the use of automation to produce content.


Google
Google has seen a rise in SEO-related spam in product reviews. IB Photography – stock.adobe.com

“It’s important to recognize that not all use of automation, including AI generation, is spam,” the blog post said.

Google controls approximately 90% of the online search marketplace. The Justice Department has accused the Big Tech giant of maintaining an illegal monopoly. A federal judge is expected to issue an initial ruling in the landmark case later this year.

Elsewhere, both Google and Microsoft-backed OpenAI have faced scrutiny over their use of copyrighted material to train their advanced AI models. In December, the New York Times took legal action OpenAI and Microsoft in a suit that seeks billions of dollars in damages.

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