The Things I Can’t Google
A few weeks back The Atlantic posed the question “Is Google Search Dying?” The TLDR: One of the most revolutionary tools on the internet is not what it used to be.
Funnily enough, the original idea for Diem came from me not being able to find what I was looking for in a rudimentary Google search a few years back. I had to take the morning after pill and ended up in an all too familiar internet rabbit hole — WebMD, bright green forums with outdated posts from 2009, unhelpful subreddits, you know the drill. I compiled my findings into a spreadsheet to be able to visualize common side effects. Having experienced really bad side effects on birth control, all I wanted was easy access to people who had similar experiences to share.
Reader, you probably understand this futile endeavor. Why? Because over 70% of Google search queries that start with the words “is it normal” pertain to the female experience.
Isn’t that wild?
That is literally billions of searches questioning the normality of the female experience, based purely on a lack of information. Google is currently the most significant gateway to try and find communities we trust beyond our private group chat. And clearly, it’s really not working for me. When I google something, I’m not usually looking for SEO-optimized articles or expert opinions because I know that the most helpful information comes from other humans with similar lived experiences.
Google Trends data shows that more people than ever have figured out an alternate hack — they are tacking the word ”reddit” onto their search query to try to access community insights. But as we know, Reddit wasn’t built for women and the large majority of its user base is male. This feels counterintuitive given that women intuitively often utilize their communities to search — for recommendations, validation, and to share experiences.
As you can probably guess, given that we’re building a community-powered (and privacy-first) search engine at Diem, we talk a lot internally about what we wish we could Google. The other day we expanded the conversation to you: we asked where Google falls short for you when you’re searching for answers? Here’s a sampling of the results:
- I struggle to find personalized information and relevant experiences for my birth control pill (any health search is terrifying)
- When I search for skincare products I don’t trust the search results as they’re all sponsored
- I always end up on Reddit to try read other experiences but I never find it very helpful as it’s badly moderated
- My whole first page is ads now, even the simplest of searches doesn’t deliver my favorite websites/brands first, I have to specifically type in “shopbop” or “new york times” to get relevant results
- I tried to search for tips on negotiating last week and i didn’t get anything I wanted to click on
- I usually want to see the reviews of products before I buy them but I can never find reviews unless i click on individual web pages
The cause of the problem is a combination of two big, Google-specific factors — SEO & advertising revenue streams. Essentially Google has been a victim of the success of its own ad models, and the ease with which SEO can be gamed has rendered their core search product, well, relatively unsearchable. In fact, back in 1998, the founders of Google, pointed out that, “we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers. Advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results.” To enable advertising streams to be successful, the internet is optimized to track; every click, search query, follow, and purchase informs how you personally experience the internet at large. Culminating in what Shoshana Zubhoff has denoted the age of “surveillance capitalism.”
“If you become pregnant, your phone generally knows before many of your friends do. The entire Internet economy is built on meticulous user tracking of purchases and search terms.” — Jia Tolentino for The New Yorker
So to add to the list of “things I can’t Google,” this one is a little more serious. Most of us understand that our every move is being tracked, yet we’re under the assumption the stakes of this reality are pretty low, perhaps even inconsequential beyond targeted ads. However, in the wake of Roe being overturned, there’s a very real possibility your search history could be subpoenaed (along with things like your period tracking apps, which is why privacy-first apps like Stardust rocketed to the top of the App Store last week) if you’re in a prohibition state. It costs a mere $160 to buy data from a broker on everyone who visited Planned Parenthood and where they went afterward. In fact, this has actually already happened to Latice Fisher, a Black mother of three in Mississippi. She experienced a stillbirth at thirty-six weeks, and when questioned, she acknowledged that she did not want more children and couldn’t afford another. After handing over her phone to the police, they scraped her search data and found search terms regarding abortion pills. The volume of Google’s surveillance also makes it likely the most attractive police target (compared to Facebook, etc). In the first half of 2021 alone, it received more than 40,000 subpoenas and search warrants in the United States.
So while Google search results’ slow deterioration is indicative of the wider demise of the authentic web, the meticulous tracking system Google (and many other ad-based platforms) have created to bolster their revenue models have created even greater risks for already vulnerable populations, even more so in this moment.
This article was originally published in Diem’s weekly newsletter on July 5th 2022, subscribe here.