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Originally published Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 10:10 PM

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Is Google losing battle against spam?

Google is facing withering criticism from tech bloggers and search-engine experts who say the world's premier gateway to digital information is increasingly being gamed by spammers. Google, they say, is losing.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — My friend Rebecca Skloot recently replaced her hulking big-box TV — I can vouch for its girth, having moved it once — with a flat-screen no thicker than an iPad. She turned it on and, horror of horrors, the picture was lousy.

Displeased, she turned to Google for help. What the search engine delivered was a mess, a collection of spammy sites riddled with ads. So she turned to Twitter, posting: "Old TV died, got newfangled LED TV. Shocked how bad/fake movies look! ... Others have this prob?"

Solutions to Skloot's technological melodrama rolled in. Fix this setting, turn this off, shazam! A few hours later, she posted: "Thx 4 fixing my TV today! It's an example of how Google = in trouble. Googled 4 fix, got spam sites. On Twitter answer = asap."

Skloot's story seems ever more common these days. Google is facing withering criticism from tech bloggers and search-engine experts who say the world's premier gateway to digital information is increasingly being gamed by spammers. Google, they say, is losing.

One tech blogger, the well-known iPhone app developer Marco Arment, wrote a post about "Google's decreasingly useful, spam-filled web search." Another blog offered a piece titled "On the increasing uselessness of Google." Yet another headline spoke of "Trouble in the House of Google."

Data seem to back them up. Google's success rate, as measured by the percentage of users visiting a website after executing a search, fell 13 percent last year, according to Experian Hitwise, which monitors Web traffic. Microsoft's Bing search engine increased its search efficiency by 9 percent over the same period.

Although there could be several reasons for the disparity, one is most certainly spam in Google's results, analysts said.

"It's clear that Google is losing some kind of war with the spammers," said tech guru Tim O'Reilly, who often cheers Google's technology. "I think Google has in some ways taken their eye off the ball, and I'd be worried about it if I were them."

Google recently responded with its own blog post, acknowledging some problems and promising to fix them.

"Reading through some of these recent articles, you might ask whether our search quality has gotten worse," the statement said. "The short answer is that according to the evaluation metrics that we've refined over more than a decade, Google's search quality is better than it has ever been in terms of relevance, freshness and comprehensiveness. ... However, we have seen a slight uptick of spam in recent months, and while we've already made progress, we have new efforts under way to continue to improve our search quality."

Critical moment

Google's predicament, analysts say, comes at a critical moment in the life of the Internet. The company generates billions of dollars in revenue from search ads. But social networks such as Twitter and Facebook offer people the ability to gather information online the way we always have offline — by asking people we know. Studies show we often give greater trust to information gathered from sources we know than from those we don't.

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The pool of people who could answer our questions online is growing fast. Internet users spend more than 20 percent of their time online using social networks. Last year, with more than 500 million users, Facebook topped Google as the world's most visited website. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham is on Facebook's board of directors.)

While millions of people still use Google every day with no problems, I now see requests in my Twitter and Facebook feeds for things I once Googled: opinions on new cars, the best home-repair person, the best place to eat, how to find a developer for iPhone apps.

When I asked a friend on Facebook why she turned to her friends for new-car ratings, she replied: "facebook makes me smile b/c everyone has opinions about everything. i thought that, in this case, the opinions would actually be helpful. i can't read big google search findings b/c i have no patience."

Different approaches

Many Internet analysts wonder whether the new spam-fighting effort, although needed, is beside the point.

"We have kind of stretched the usefulness of search-engine algorithms for surfacing the kind of specific content we are looking for," said William Tancer, general manager of global research for Experian Hitwise.

The future, many believe, is social search. Microsoft, which is a major investor in Facebook, can scour a searcher's own Facebook account on every query. Facebook, noting an increase in users who ask for information in their status updates, is testing a new function called Facebook Questions.

"Anyone can answer your question, which means you can tap into the collective knowledge of the millions of people on Facebook," the company says on a Web page explaining the new tool.

Answers that users rate as high quality can then be highlighted beyond a user's own social network, pushing answers from one network of people to many, many others.

A hot startup called Quora is following a similar question-and-answer model. Meanwhile, Google is also working on social search, with co-founder Sergey Brin reportedly heading up the effort. He recently said the company has scratched just 1 percent of what social search could be.

Google already searches Twitter alongside classic Web page searches. Users signed in on a Google account will also see results such as images or status updates from their contacts. Some information from Facebook is included, but nothing from a user's account.

Aadrdvark's reach

Google spent $50 million last year to buy a company called Aardvark that lets users send questions to people in their social networks. If those friends can't answer the question, it is sent on to friends of friends. Answers are delivered, often immediately, via instant message or e-mail. I gave it a try last week.

I have a nasty case of sciatica and might need to start walking at my desk while I work. I asked Aardvark: "What is the best way to set up a treadmill desk? I want to put a treadmill under my desk sometimes." One smart aleck quickly answered, "Does your desk need some exercise?" But a few minutes later, I got an instant message from someone named Adam K. in Cranberry, Pa., offering a collection of Web links.

"Was Adam's answer helpful?" Aardvark asked.

I clicked yes.

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