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Freakonomics podcast investigates whether Google Search is ‘getting worse’

Updated Dec 6th, 2022 7:15PM EST
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Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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If you’ve felt like it’s harder than ever to use Google Search to find a specific piece of information that you’re after — whether because of ads that clutter up the search results page or other items like maps and “People also asked” questions similarly clamoring for your attention — a new episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast is just for you.

Freakonomics podcast on Google Search

To an average user, one of the unfortunate things about the way one of Google’s signature products works is that it does so in a bit of a black box. When you use Google to search for a particular piece of information, what you get is what you get it. There sometimes seems like not much of a rhyme or reason to the way it’s all arranged — and we put up with the little quirks and oddities, because what the hell else are we going to do? Switch to Yahoo?

By oddities, here’s an example of what I mean. One of the biggest Netflix shows in the world right now is Manifest, which just debuted Part 1 of its fourth and final season on the streamer. But do I get a link to Manifest‘s Netflix landing page when I type “Manifest” into a blank Google search box?

Manifest on Netflix
Parveen Kaur as Saanvhi Bahl in “Manifest.” Image source: Netflix

Of course not. Google thinks I might be after, for example, the Manifest Wikipedia page — that’s what’s at the top of the results listings for me. After that, I’m shown a selection of “People also asked” questions related to Manifest. And then a link to the IMDb page for Manifest, followed by a link to Manifest-related news stories.

Still haven’t found what I’m looking for yet…

After all that, there’s a link to Manifest’s NBC page (NBC, remember, is where Manifest previously aired before the network canceled it, which led to Netflix picking it up). And then, after all of those results that I didn’t care about, now we come to the Manifest landing page on Netflix.

‘A different environment’

“So here’s my recent-ish experience with Google, having used Google for a million years,” host Stephen Dubner says during the Freakonomics episode, which you can listen to below:

“But in the last year-and-a-half or two, I felt more and more that — whereas in the old days, a Google search would typically produce results that were really useful to me if I wanted to learn something about the search topic — these days, it feels to me that a Google search will more typically produce results that are useful if I want to buy something related to the search topic. And then I find myself going down further and then yeah, I find what I’m after. But it feels like a different environment.”

Guests on this episode include Google Search vice president Liz Reid, as well as a past Google executive (Marissa Mayer).

They discuss, among other things, why Google shows the ads that it does. And why the search giant increasingly serves up the answer to queries directly within Google Search rather than spinning users off to someone else’s website to get that answer or the content that they seek.

Listen to the episode below:

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.