Microincentives and Enshittification

How the Curse of Bigness wrecked Google Search.

Cory Doctorow
7 min readJul 28

--

A clip from a Jenga ad showing a dad knocking over the Jenga tower.

It’s hard to convey just how revolutionary Google Search was when it debuted in 1998. It blew rivals — from AskJeeves and Altavista to Yahoo — out of the water. It was so good, it was almost spooky, surfacing the best of the web with just a few clicks.

Today, Google owns the search market, controlling more than 90 percent of searches. Its worth hovers in the trillion-dollar range, and it employs some 180,000 people in offices all over the world. Almost every online journey we take starts with a Google search.

And here’s the thing: Google Search suuuuucks.

It sucks in so many ways. Search results are cluttered with poorly denoted ads from businesses whose websites aren’t good enough to warrant inclusion at the top of the listings on their own merits. The websites that do float “organically” to the top of the listings are often spammy garbage, filled with algorithm-pleasing nonsense.

Woe betide the internet user looking for a simple omelette recipe — the top-ranked specimens have all been prepended with thousands of words of SEO verbiage about “the first time I ate an egg.

With the advent of Large Language Models, Google results have gotten even worse, as chatbots churn out nonsense on a superhuman scale. Incredibly, Google’s response to this is its own chatbot, which will summarize the garbage novellas generated by SEO creeps into florid paragraphs laden with “hallucinated” lies presented with the conscienceless of a narcissist.

Search and spam have always been at war. In the Altavista days, “search engine optimization” consisted of ending every page with seven paragraphs of white-on-white keywords (“keyword stuffing”).

Today, the SEO industry uses much more sophisticated techniques, locking horns with Google. Of course: Google’s the first — and often the last — place we go to for answers, so snagging top billing in a Google search results page is, approximately speaking, equivalent to being “true.”

Google is losing. Search for your local restaurant — a verified Google merchant, no less! — and the top result will be a scammer that cloned their website, jacked up their prices by 15…

--

--

Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr