Google's ambiguity is no new thing

By: Rob Corbidge, 11 January 2024

A webpage showing SEO advice

Is a bland and sub-par web being born, or will the vast array of human experience and imagination triumph online? We've been reading the documentation...

Imagine you have ordered and received a new lawn mower. 

Your advanced and pristine grass slicing device sits awaiting your attention, and so you open the instruction manual for a brief familiarisation session before beginning the first cut. 

However, instead of a concise explanation of how to set blade height, you realise you are instead reading a treatise on the growth pattern of common grasses.

Quickly thumbing through the instructions, you conclude that while fairly well-written, if a little ambiguous, none of the text refers to the actual machine you are trying to set up, and instead offers the most general information on, well, how grass grows.

Welcome to the abstruse world of Google documentation. Or, to allow a refinement, the wonderful world of Google documentation as it pertains to trying to get your site out of the gutter and into the stars. A world in which your garden can precisely conform to all their directives, yet neither rain nor sunlight arrives.

My own experience with such bafflingly vague Google documentation came some years ago, as I switched from being a content-only person to one with at least an exploratory knowledge of how a site must be structured and perform to satisfy the search giant's criteria. 

Approaching Google's documentation from the perspective of someone who worded for a living, I was as confident as I always am in tackling the written word. 

What a foolish chap I was!

When learning something new, you must grasp on to the definitive parts of that learning like rockholds ascending the Eiger. None of the documentation offered clear answers to pretty much anything, and my initial impression was I must be missing something in what I was reading, something just out of grasp and which must be my fault. 

It took me about six months to understand that wasn't the case and I was dealing with a case of advanced documentation ambiguity.

The realisation soon followed that it wasn't just me, and that anyone responsible for running a commercially-driven site would find it incredibly hard to answer the kind of questions I'd expect a boss to ask about traffic and what we're doing to get it, or worse, why we've lost it.

This was over a decade ago, and nothing seems to have changed. In fact, it's got worse. As a fascinating recent article in The Verge put it: "Google is both overbearing with manuals and withholding of clear answers."

If you haven't read The Verge's piece about trying to optimise a site for Google, then do, even if only to enjoy the amount of work put in to produce it and the name of the lizard ownership advice site they chose as an example ("Karma Chameleon"). There's much in the piece that will chime frustratingly for anyone familiar with the Google game.

A central concern is that by having to slavishly follow Google's directives over page design, indexing, file sizes and so on, to tick the right boxes to appear in results, we have by default ended up with a web of disheartening uniformity, and one increasingly dominated by content farms with or without AI. 

And as we all know, recommendations do not end at what might be called technical recommendations: the very writing style itself and the topics you choose to write about are heavily guided towards certain styles and formatting.

As we in publishing contemplate the cookiepocalypse what strengths do we look to to mitigate the worst-case scenarios that the loss of third-party cookies could foreshadow? Our brands. 

In effect, we're going to back full circle to how it used to be before Google's mission changed from enabling discoverability to being the agent of awful conformity. 

This isn't meant to be a full-throated attack on Google - plenty of room on other matters for that - and in its defence there is absolutely a point to be made in respect of the mobile web, for example: strictures emplaced resulted in a faster, more efficient experience for users. 

Equally though, one can argue those improvements were a natural progression of the new technology, in the manner that when, say, water taps become available most people use them in preference to a well and bucket. Users gravitate to better things, best practice travels.

It seems to me that we were always serving the Google brand, not our own ones. It's just more apparent now that in the era of Generative Search  and competition from new AI tools, they want users never to leave the search page in order to have a better "search experience".

Ironic, given that the search page is arguably now the most degraded part of the process of reading and learning about anything.