More on what Google means by evil

John Gruber thinks that What Google means by evil is too lofty, because:

Search results are worse with ads than without.

This certainly isn’t true in my experience: sometimes, the ads provide a better link than the first page of Google’s results, because the relevance algorithms which determine what ads are surfaced are really rather good.

What’s more, it clearly isn’t Google’s belief:

We don’t allow ads to be displayed on our results pages unless they are relevant where they are shown. And we firmly believe that ads can provide useful information if, and only if, they are relevant to what you wish to find–so it‘s possible that certain searches won’t lead to any ads at all.

And this is nothing new. Here’s Larry Page, talking in 2007:

For users, we strive to produce relevant advertising as good as the main content or search results.

In other words, Google sees the ads not only as a method of making money, but – if they do it right – a secondary way to improve the value of the search engine to users. If they get the algorithms which determine which ads are surfaced right, they’ll offer something that’s relevant and useful to the user, while being different to the actual search results.

From their business perspective, too, search results cannot be worse with ads than without – because that would mean Google’s business failing. If what John says were true, the click-through1 rates on search ads would be poor – and billions of dollars of Google profits suggest they’re not.


  1. Strictly speaking, what is important to Google isn’t just the click-through rate, but the “long click” – ie. does the user stay away after the click, indicating that they’ve found what they wanted, or do they come back and click again, indicating they haven’t? The long-click rate is one of the key variables that Google uses to determine relevancy in search results, and although I don’t know this for sure I’d be very surprised if it isn’t a key determinant in the relevancy of ads, too. Remember: Google ads aren’t simply positioned according to the highest bidder. Relevancy is a factor as well.  ↩
  • https://avolvapris.info/ George Trethewey

    If Google’s business fails—which removing ads from their search results would guarantee—the lack of Google Search would definitely be worse for users than having the ads is. I agree with Gruber that ads are rotten, but he’s focussing on the immediate experience of using the site & ignoring the larger concern: it is better for the user to have access to Google than not to. Given that to survive Google has to include ads, their efforts to make said ads tolerable are probably the best they can do short of moving to a direct-payment–only model, which would also probably send the company under.

    I wish Google offered a for-pay ad-free option, but to be honest I think they’d screw it up. The whole company is geared towards free-to-use ad-supported products, to the extent that paying Google Apps customers come second to Gmail users. Now that is rotten.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Good points, George. And Google does offer some ad-free options: If you pay for Google Apps, for example, you don’t get ads.