Google and the Nothing

How Google's sprawl has shaped modern content

Art: Friendship, Pablo Picasso, 1908

Vicki’s Note: I realize the irony of complaining about paywalls in a semi-paywalled newsletter, so as of today, I’m working on opening up all the paywalled Normcore archives. I’ve gotten up to April of this month so far (it takes like 5 clicks to ungate each post.) Only the latest week’s paid subscriber post will be locked, and then after a weekish passes, I’ll unlock it. 

Google, for better or worse, has become our closest friend, our confidant, our therapist, the place where we go to whisper our secret fears at 3 am, hoping it will answer them.  And Google knew this as early as 2009, when it made this ad: 

Ever since, we have been drawn to Google for advice, for solace, just to know that someone else is out there with the same problems as us. We have used the power of hundreds of thousands of machines churning away quietly in Utah, Paris, and around the world, just to connect to a single other person offering us the advice we need. 

Your Worst Best Friend

Off the top of my head, here’s a list of things that I’ve needed someone with more experience than me to weigh in on very quickly over the past couple months, sometimes also at 3 in the morning. 

  • Baby fever teething

  • Tornado watch Philadelphia

  • COVID symptoms

  • Pandemic crafts 5 year old

  • COVID testing near me

  • Can you transmit COVID even if you don’t have it

  • Getting rid of ants under deck

  • Can ants catch COVID

I don’t remember the exact searches I did, because I disabled search history, which Google studiously tracks, sometime after 2014. It’s probably for the best, anyway. My last search recorded search results strings included,, inexplicably, in a row “roman gods”, “Philadelphia man cheese” and “zip -e unix.”  

Right around the same time that I disabled search history was when my love affair with Google started unravelling. 

As was the case for many of us, Google was my confidant and best friend. But, after the revelations of Edward Snowden, it became a gaping hole that all of my extremely personal data went into, only to come out some other end in an NSA Hive cluster, or worse, targeted and resold to advertisers who now also all knew about my ant problem and my baby teething. 

What didn’t help is that Google itself was becoming less of a friendly, quirky search friend, but a big, grown-up corporation. And, as it grew, it became colder, more strategic. Which led the webpages populating the internet to also become more strategic so that they could get the Google algorithm’s attention. 

Whereas before we could search Google and get direct access to information, now every single thing that we Google for produces not blogs or homemade sites, actual news, but manufactured, packaged search results with predetermined and prefiltered results that lead us to click through to sites that are so packed full of SEO, spam, ads, and cruft, that it’s impossible to squeeze the last bit of content from the vast internet. 

In a way, the progress of content on the internet has reminded me of the old children’s classic, Neverending Story (highly recommend the book as well as the movie), where the land of Fantasia is disappearing as it is consumed by The Nothing, a nameless, shapeless void that consumes Fantasia bit by bit. All Fantasians consumed by The Nothing are reborn as lies in the human world.

G'mork:
Foolish boy. Don't you know anything about Fantasia? It's the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries.

Atreyu:
But why is Fantasia dying, then?

G'mork:
Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.

Atreyu:
What is the Nothing?

G'mork:
It's the emptiness that's left. It's like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.

Atreyu:
But why?

G'mork:
Because people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has control has the Power.

Why is this happening? Really, there are two separate issues. 

The First Problem: The Google Search Result Page

Google’s results page used to be so easy. You search for “roman gods”, it sends you back some links to Wikipedia, some to random Latin class pages built by university professors, and maybe a link to a site in Italy. 

These days, Google, who has before stated that they don’t want to be an arbiter of truth, is an arbiter of truth with Google Cards and Snippets, which are usually the first results for any search. The reason they say they do this, of course, is that it’s more efficient. But really, they don’t want you to leave Google, which has resulted in a dubious practice that verges but slightly skirts web scraping, and a results page that looks like a billboard instead of a text search.

Then, there is keyword highjacking.

Then, there is the way the Google homepage was recently redesigned, and promptly rolled back, 

Google made one of the biggest changes to how it displays search results in the company’s history earlier this month, with the changes taking effect over the course of the last week. It involved a visual overhaul that makes it more difficult to differentiate between advertising and organic search results with the removal of color overlays and the introduction of small branded iconography, known on the web as favicons, next to non-ad results. 

The search results page that comes up in the commercial from 2009 seems laughably naive, cute. It’s just way, way too functional. 

Everything that Google has done to make people stay on the page and make results more accessible has resulted in a set of editorial decisions that mean we’re no longer getting straight search results that take us away from the page, but are in some kind of Upside Down Google Funhouse Internet where the content is brought directly to us, and the internet that is brought to us is stripped of context, of the richness of the pages on their own pages, wrapped up in Google’s business logic.

The text and content that works best in this new Funouse Internet is content that plays by the rules: it’s easy to scrape, it’s made up of videos and pictures that catch the algorithm’s attention, and it self-links in hundreds of ways to boost SEO.

It’s the opposite of actual, good content that people want to consume.

As Visa says,

The Second Problem: Building for Google

The second issue is that sites now understand that they’re competing with this Upside Down Internet. It’s up there on their list of worries, along with a shrinking public attention span, shrinking ad revenues, an uncertain market, and everything that makes the internet the beautiful, broken thing it is today.

And, by the way, all of this has been going on for years. This comment, from Hacker News’s prolific patio11, was posted in 2010, only a few years after that initial Paris ad.

And so these sites are turning to the only strategies they know that will keep people on their own sites, which are dark anti-patterns - more propogation of The Nothing.

I’m going to pick on Business Insider here because they’re one of the worst offenders, and also because every time I research something business-related for a Normcore post, they’re one of the first sites that come up.  Not only is everything ridiculously paywalled, but this is the mobile experience. And there’s a lot more dark patterns where that comes from

Every single piece of content is designed to funnel people to ads, to the worst possible UX patterns, because that’s what makes money according to Google right now. My favorite recent piece on these patterns has been “Medium and the Scourge of the Persistent Sharing Dickbars,” which Medium ended up removing, but the ...medium...has gotten worse and worse. 

Literally any search I’ve done lately results in either pages of results from sketchy websites, or a paywall, or an article that repeats the phrase over and over again for SEO’s sake and doesn’t get to the meat of the question I’m looking for. I tried finding a specific example, but there are too many to list.

A search for baby teething symptoms leads to WebMD, which sells your data to Google, or Mayo Clinic, which might be ok, but it’s been on the Big Data bandwagon for a long time, so who knows what they’re doing with front-end tracking data. By the way, if you go down the Mayo Clinic rabbit hole for too long, you get to this article where they’re collaborating with Epic, the really weird but bigtime healthcare record company whose leadership is forcing employees back to the office during a pandemic

Or, if you’re looking for recipes, where it takes at least a page or two to get to the actual content because it’s better for sites to show videos and newsletter popups.

Here we are thinking that we were in control of our websites, but what’s happened is that Google (and, later, its social friends), has been in the driver’s seat for how internet content is developed. 

I recently went back through my blog archives, and it looks like I’ve been struggling with this shrinking content since 2016, when I scraped a Wired webpage to get at the text

It’s 2016. I shouldn’t have to write a scraping script to extract the information I need from the webpage of a magazine article. But that’s exactly what I had to do in February when I needed information on switching between Android and iOS.

The Tangled Web

And here we have the real fundamental problem of today’s internet:  We are awash in in websites, but the amount of information we’re getting from these websites, from all websites really, is exponentially shrinking. The Nothing is winning.

Lately, it seems like everyone else is thinking about this, as well.

And, in a very very good article on the news paywall piece, Nathan Robinson writes that much of the news media we consume today is paywalled, but more sensational sources are free, relying on clicks against Google’s algorithm for traffic. The problem is even worse in the misinformation sphere. 

A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access. (I recently gave up on trying to access a scholarly article because I could not find a way to get it for less than $39.95, though in that case the article was garbage rather than gold.

It’s really a very dangerous problem, as we can see by the rise of misinformation. The more we’ve given to Google and friends, the more they’ve taken, to the point where it’s impossible to find any genuine content that’s not algorithmed away. 

In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium has really become the message, and the message is that money matters. But the second part of what McLuhan said after that famous quote is was very interesting, as well, “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of our-selves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

How do we push back the Nothing? 

It’s true that if you try to solve this problem today, you play by the rules of Google’s internet . Even Substack, the platform this newsletter is hosted on, which is fighting against the shrinkage of content, is impacted by Google.  

If you send too much data in a Substack newsletter, Gmail will truncate the email, which they warn you about with concern. 

Gmail will truncate emails that are more than 102KB (the "Message clipped" notice you might've seen on other people's emails), which can affect your email analytics, because they also truncate the tracking code. We display a warning after you've exceeded Gmail's size limit.

Which means that many times, people will feel compelled to cut content so that the email gets delivered. Many other companies who deliver email also rely entirely on the good graces of being outside of Google’s spam filter. 

As I type, the warning button is coming up on my Substack editor, leading me to think about what I need to cut in this draft.

It’s a real doozy. Everything we do online to create content these days is reliant on Google, the company, as an arbiter of what makes content “good”, which is really the decision of maybe a few hundred PMs and developers (now at home) in California, and entirely dependent on what’s going to continue to make Google profitable instead of what’s actually good for the internet. 

When I think about what I can personally do to fight decontification, I’m at a loss. I did the research for this post using Google, writing it with Substack which is impacted by Gmail delivery mechanisms, writing the draft of it in Google Docs which is production), impacted by a million other things going on under the covers, algorithms and infrastructure I can’t even begin to list out. 

Sure, I can continue to write good content on my own platform. I can continue to use adblock and fight clicking on dubious links, to tell my family not to read clickbait, to strip UTMs, to not use Google’s AMP service to click through to links, don’t use Chrome, etc. But at this point, it’s an uphill battle.

In The Neverending Story, the way Balthazar won against the Nothing was by recreating Fantasia from his imagination and giving the Childlike Empress a new name. We need to stop Google from having this power to create more Nothing.

It’s not clear that it will happen from a regulatory perspective anytime soon, and my personal opinion is that “breaking up Google” is not a realistic battle cry, because what does that mean? It’s very hostile, abstract, and not entirely actionable. Does Microsoft get Google Search product and Dropbox gets Google Docs? But who will get the Snippets?

While regulators continue to catch up on this issue and we continue to think about solutions, the only thing we can do as individuals with a stake in access to content, I think, is to keep talking about it and documenting it, to keep creating open, free content, to use DuckDuckGo or other alternatives, sidestep AMP, and to spread knowledge of the Nothing, in the hopes that, as a starting point, awareness of the problem will start to drive it back.

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Sharpies - going back to school in America

  2. Randy on getting more people into the data community

  3. A really boring way to save money

  4. My first time hearing about the W curve

  5. On Dashboards

  6. Twitter, George Soros, and Porn

  7. Privacy-focused analytics from scratch

  8. Mozilla thread


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The Author:
I’m a machine learning engineer. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.