In early April, software engineer Dmitri Kyle Brereton published a blog post — “Google Search Is Dying” — that struck a nerve. Now among the most upvoted threads of all time on Y Combinator’s Hacker News forum, the piece argues many users have become so dissatisfied with Google search results that they now append “Reddit” to the end of their queries — repurposing Google Search as a souped-up search engine for Reddit and its communities.
Brereton blamed the trend on sites’ drive to optimize pages for Google Search and Google’s preferential treatment of its own properties, like Google Flights. But he asserted that Google Search has historically been poor at answering more open-ended questions whose answers tend to be diverse, like which laptop is the best on the market. In an effort to address this second shortcoming, Google is today introducing a feature called “Discussions and forums” that will incorporate search results from discussion forums, including Reddit, Quora, and Edmunds.com in response to “searches that might benefit from … diverse personal experiences.”
“Forums can be a useful place to find first-hand advice, and to learn from people who have experience with something you’re interested in,” Google News product manager Itamar Snir and Google Search product manager Lauren Clark wrote in a blog post. “We’ve heard from you that you want to see more of this content in Search, so we’ve been exploring new ways to make it easier to find.”
Available for English users on mobile platforms in the U.S. to start, “Discussions and forums” will show content from forums and online discussions across the web in line with other Google Search results. For example, a search for “the best cars for a growing family” will yield standard web links in addition to links to forum posts that include advice from people, like their experiences with minivans transporting multiple children.
It’s unclear which specific queries will trigger “Discussion and forums” beyond those generally phrased in an open-ended way. But Google says that it’ll monitor usage of the feature over time and might tweak it in the future in response to feedback.
“[Discussions and forums] will help bring you even more viewpoints, so you can have additional context and choices when you search,” Snir and Clark continued. “These … new features will bring more perspectives to your search, helping you make informed choices and learn more about what’s going on around the world.”
Depending on how you look at it, “Discussions and forums” — which can’t be switched off — is either an admission of defeat on Google’s part or a natural progression for Google Search. By formalizing a practice that’s becoming widespread, as Brereton alleged, Google is tacitly acknowledging that web-based search results — the product on which it built its ad empire — aren’t adequately answering users’ questions. On the other hand, some within Google perceive any use of its search engine over alternatives, like Reddit’s built-in search, as a win.
I’m in the latter camp. Assuming “Discussions and forums” works as advertised, Google stands to reap the benefits of retention — namely more data about users and the searches that they’re performing — while delivering better, if different, results. Toxicity on the forums from which it sources might pose a problem down the line. But clearly, Google believes it’s worth the effort.