Google reneged on the monopolistic bargain

A search monopolist should never do a layoff, buyback or dividend for so long as it’s enshittifying.

Cory Doctorow
8 min readFeb 21, 2024


A picture postcard of a idyllic small town main street. Looming over the scene is a hypersaturated can of Spam. In the foreground is a sleeping German shepherd with Google logos over its eyes. It sports a dream-bubble with a lunging attack dog.

I’m on tour with my new novel The Bezzle! Catch me TONIGHT in SALT LAKE CITY (Feb 21, Weller Book Works) and then TOMORROW in SAN DIEGO (Feb 22, Mysterious Galaxy). After that, it’s LA, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix and more!

A yellow rectangle. On the left, in blue, are the words ‘Cory Doctorow.’ On the right, in black, is ‘The Bezzle.’ Between them is the motif from the cover of *The Bezzle*: an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

A funny thing happened on the way to the enshittocene: Google — which astonished the world when it reinvented search, blowing Altavista and Yahoo out of the water with a search tool that seemed magic — suddenly turned into a pile of shit.

Google’s search results are terrible. The top of the page is dominated by spam, scams, and ads. A surprising number of those ads are scams. Sometimes, these are high-stakes scams played out by well-resourced adversaries who stand to make a fortune by tricking Google:

But often these scams are perpetrated by petty grifters who are making a couple bucks at this. These aren’t hyper-resourced, sophisticated attackers. They’re the SEO equivalent of script kiddies, and they’re running circles around Google:

Google search is empirically worsening. The SEO industry spends every hour that god sends trying to figure out how to sleaze their way to the top of the search results, and even if Google defeats 99% of these attempts, the 1% that squeak through end up dominating the results page for any consequential query:

Google insists that this isn’t true, and if it is true, it’s not their fault because the bad guys out there are so numerous, dedicated and inventive that Google can’t help but be overwhelmed by them:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Google has long maintained that its scale is the only thing that keeps us safe from the scammers and spammers who would otherwise overwhelm any lesser-resourced defender. That’s why it was so imperative that they pursue such aggressive growth, buying up hundreds of companies and integrating their products with search so that every mobile device, every ad, every video, every website, had one of Google’s tendrils in it.

This is the argument that Google’s defenders have put forward in their messaging on the long-overdue antitrust case against Google, where we learned that Google is spending $26b/year to make sure you never try another search engine:

Google, we were told, had achieved such intense scale that the normal laws of commercial and technological physics no longer applied. Take security: it’s an iron law that “there is no security in obscurity.” A system that is only secure when its adversaries don’t understand how it works is not a secure system. As Bruce Schneier says, “anyone can design a security system that they themselves can’t break. That doesn’t mean it works — just that it works for people stupider than them.”

And yet, Google operates one of the world’s most consequential security system — The Algorithm (TM) — in total secrecy. We’re not allowed to know how Google’s ranking system works, what its criteria are, or even when it changes: “If we told you that, the spammers would win.”

Well, they kept it a secret, and the spammers won anyway.

A viral post by Housefresh — who review air purifiers — describes how Google’s algorithmic failures, which send the worst sites to the top of the heap, have made it impossible for high-quality review sites to compete:

You’ve doubtless encountered these bad review sites. Search for “Best ______ 2024” and the results are a series of near-identical lists, strewn with Amazon affiliate links. Google has endlessly tinkered with its guidelines and algorithmic weights for review sites, and none of it has made a difference. For example, when Google instituted a policy that reviewers should “discuss the benefits and drawbacks of something, based on your own original research,” sites that had previously regurgitated the same lists of the same top ten Amazon bestsellers “peppered their pages with references to a ‘rigorous testing process,’ their ‘lab team,’ subject matter experts ‘they collaborated with,’ and complicated methodologies that seem impressive at a cursory look.”

But these grandiose claims — like the 67 air purifiers supposedly tested in Better Homes and Gardens’s Des Moines lab — result in zero in-depth reviews and no published data. Moreover, these claims to rigorous testing materialized within a few days of Google changing its search ranking and said that high rankings would be reserved for sites that did testing.

Most damning of all is how the Better Homes and Gardens top air purifiers perform in comparison to the — extensively documented — tests performed by Housefresh: “plagued by high-priced and underperforming units, Amazon bestsellers with dubious origins (that also underperform), and even subpar devices from companies that market their products with phrases like ‘the Tesla of air purifiers.’”

One of the top ranked items on BH&G comes from Molekule, a company that filed for bankruptcy after being sued for false advertising. The model BH&G chose was ranked “the worst air purifier tested” by Wirecutter and “not living up to the hype” by Consumer Reports. Either BH&G’s rigorous testing process is a fiction that they infused their site with in response to a Google policy change, or BH&G absolutely sucks at rigorous testing.

BH&G’s competitors commit the same sins — literally, the exact same sins. Real Simple’s reviews list the same photographer and the photos seem to have been taken in the same place. They also list the same person as their “expert.” Real Simple has the same corporate parent as BH&G: Dotdash Meredith. As Housefresh shows, there’s a lot of Dotdash Meredith review photos that seem to have been taken in the same place, by the same person.

But the competitors of these magazines are no better. Buzzfeed lists 22 air purifiers, including that crapgadget from Molekule. Their “methodology” is to include screenshots of Amazon reviews.

A lot of the top ranked sites for air purifiers are once-great magazines that have been bought and enshittified by private equity giants, like Popular Science, which began as a magazine in 1872 and became a shambling zombie in 2023, after its PE owners North Equity LLC decided its googlejuice was worth more than its integrity and turned it into a metastatic chumbox of shitty affiliate-link SEO-bait. As Housefresh points out, the marketing team that runs PopSci makes a lot of hay out of the 150 years of trust that went into the magazine, but the actual reviews are thin anaecdotes, unbacked by even the pretense of empiricism (oh, and they loooove Molekule).

Some of the biggest, most powerful, most trusted publications in the world have a side-hustle in quietly producing SEO-friendly “10 Best ___________ of 2024” lists: Rolling Stone, Forbes, US News and Report, CNN, New York Magazine, CNN, CNET, Tom’s Guide, and more.

Google literally has one job: to detect this kind of thing and crush it. The deal we made with Google was, “You monopolize search and use your monopoly rents to ensure that we never, ever try another search engine. In return, you will somehow distinguish between low-effort, useless nonsense and good information. You promised us that if you got to be the unelected, permanent overlord of all information access, you would ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’”

They broke the deal.

Companies like CNET used to do real, rigorous product reviews. As Housefresh points out, CNET once bought an entire smart home and used it to test products. Then Red Ventures bought CNET and bet that they could sell the house, switch to vibes-based reviewing, and that Google wouldn’t even notice. They were right.

Google downranks sites that spend money and time on reviews like Housefresh and GearLab, and crams botshittened content mills like BH&G into our eyeballs instead.

In 1558, Thomas Gresham coined (ahem) Gresham’s Law: “Bad money drives out good.” When counterfeit money circulates in the economy, anyone who gets a dodgy coin spends it as quickly as they can, because the longer you hold it, the greater the likelihood that someone will detect the fraud and the coin will become worthless. Run this system long enough and all the money in circulation is funny money.

An internet run by Google has its own Gresham’s Law: bad sites drive out good. It’s not just that BH&G can “test” products at a fraction of the cost of Housefresh — through the simple expedient of doing inadequate tests or no tests at all — so they can put a lot more content up that Housefresh. But that alone wouldn’t let them drive Housefresh off the front page of Google’s search results. For that, BH&G has to mobilize some of their savings from the no test/bad test lab to do real rigorous science: science in defeating Google’s security-through-obscurity system, which lets them command the front page despite publishing worse-than-useless nonsense.

Google has lost the spam wars. In response to the plague of botshit clogging Google search results, the company has invested in…making more botshit:

Last year, Google did a $70b stock buyback. They also laid off 12,000 staffers (whose salaries could have been funded for 27 years by that stock buyback). They just laid off thousands more employees.

That wasn’t the deal. The deal was that Google would get a monopoly, and they would spend their monopoly rents to be so good that you could just click “I’m feeling lucky” and be teleported to the very best response to your query. A company that can’t figure out the difference between a scam like Better Homes and Gardens and a rigorous review site like Housefresh should be pouring every spare dime it brings in into fixing this problem. Not buying default search status on every platform so that we never try another search engine: they should be fixing their shit.

When Google admits that it’s losing the war to these kack-handed spam-farmers, that’s frustrating. When they light $26b/year on fire making sure you don’t ever get to try anything else, that’s very frustrating. When they vaporize seventy billion dollars on financial engineering and shoot one in ten engineers, that’s outrageous.

Google’s scale has transcended the laws of business physics: they can sell an ever-degrading product and command an ever-greater share of our economy, even as their incompetence dooms any decent, honest venture to obscurity while providing fertile ground — and endless temptation — for scammers.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: