There are those who will tell you that Ask Jeeves was right all along. I’m less sure that’s true. In fact, I’m starting to think that if you’re a tech person considering a startup, Google’s fascination with adding a slow and unreliable AI chat to the results is an opening for you to put a stone on the accelerator and absolutely run away from Google over.
Ask Jeeves launched in 1997, and the idea was that you would type a natural language question into the box, and the clerk would come back with an answer. (Jeeves was named after PG Wodehouse’s famous character, an almost omniscient man with a “feudal mind.” Disclosure: My cat was also named after this character.) It was popular until Google Search came on the scene – an engine with a better ability to search the web, among its other strengths.
This comes after a period of marked degradation of Google Search, caused in part by Google’s own success
One of the ways Google Search set itself apart in the early days of Ask Jeeves was that it was easier to use for anyone who knew anything about it Boolean search. Boolean operators (“and”, “or” and “not”) are powerful tools for narrowing search results and getting the results you want. Ask Jeeves about a Boolean query for his users when they entered natural language terms – as Google does now – but guess on a Boolean term for a user is much less powerful than a user simply entering Boolean search terms themselves. For power users, Google was clearly superior.
And now, for reasons best known to themselves, Google has chosen to cripple its search operation: by adding a box at the top with AI-powered “natural language” (lol, lmao) responses. This comes after a period of marked degradation of Google Search, caused in part by Google’s own success: Entire Search Engine Optimization teams have been built to ensure that websites appear on the first page of search, as most people never click through to the second. And there is a rise of SEO decoys that come up first.
SEO bait is not really new. If you look at HTML for the Heaven’s Gate website, which is actually a time capsule from 1997, you will see a series of words at the end, displayed in the same color as the background of the website. Those words are search terms and reflect the SEO of the time: “alien” is repeated 14 times, for example, to prioritize it with crawlers. But trying to find that website now illustrates the problem with Google Search – because it prioritizes recentness and because SEO has changed since then, the original cult website isn’t in the top 10 results, or even the top 50, for “Heaven’s Gate.” ”
I am not the first to perceive that Google Search has gotten significantly worse over the years. Part of the problem, of course, is that the web is bigger than it used to be. Part of it is new SEO tactics. Part of it is the increasing volume of large language model peep – Google has really shit in its own nest with that. Some of it is inexplicable: what devil deal did Pinterest make to get its largely useless results so high?
“I searched for some products in Bard, and it offered me a place to buy them, a URL, and it doesn’t exist at all.”
However, the move to an AI chatbot-like search response tells me Google doesn’t understand why it beat Ask Jeeves. It was a better experience for power users. Most of us don’t want a questionably accurate summarized answer derived from unknown websites – we want to be able to judge the source of our answer by looking at the original copy. Ranking links down — that is, the websites that may have been created by real real people — means you remove that. And crucially, AI has slowed down Google’s responses. Are you patient enough to wait for a maybe wrong answer from God knows where? I am not.
I mean, even Sundar Pichai noticed the problem: “I searched for some products in Bard, and it offered me a place to buy them, a URL, and it doesn’t exist at all,” he told the boss on Decoder. Cool product, brother!
For the first time in my life, I think Google Search is vulnerable. Take Bluesky, which – to a user – is almost exactly like Twitter, except it’s not loaded with them crypto spam, gore videos, and Elon Musk. One way to beat Google: a startup that looks and feels like the old Google Search, but produces better results, perhaps by choosing different dimensions to index on. Maybe someone smart can use AI under the hood to filter out the garbage.
But maybe it’s technically too tricky to figure out how to crawl the web in its degraded, AI-overrun, SEO-bombed state. There has been an opinion – largely put forth by people hype their investments – that AI will devalue human labour. But what if the rise of AI-written nonsense makes humans more valuable? If you want a human result, not some machine-generated SEO bait, you might want a human involved in the search process. You could go in the direction of a trustee.
In fact, that’s another early Internet search model that could be revived: the Yahoo! Directory, started in 1994. At the time, it was one of the most convenient ways to navigate the Internet: a human-indexed directory intended for users to browse. It was crushed by the supremacy of Google Search and closed in 2014. There’s even an existing signal here that’s valuable: the popularity of adding the search term “Reddit”. I don’t know how long that will work in the LLM era, but it does suggest that a number of users really want results from other people.
I don’t know what the real solution is. All I know is I smell weakness, and if you’ve ever been the kind of person who has longed to take down a giant using only a slingshot, now’s your moment. Because the main problem with turning Google Search into Ask Jeeves is that we already know what happened to Ask Jeeves.