In the last few days I’ve read quite a few blog posts, comments and articles about a decline in quality of Google’s search results. [1] When information is becoming more and more important in people’s day-to-day work, what does that mean for learning and performance professionals?

Most of the authors I’ve read aren’t suggesting that Google’s technology or user interface is getting worse, it’s that its job is getting more and more difficult because of content farms and spam.

Here are three pretty decent summaries of the arguments that are being made that search quality is dropping:

Marco Arment: Google’s decreasingly useful, spam-filled web search (Marco’s the founder of Instapaper and former lead developer of Tumblr, two respected startup companies).

Jeff Atwood: Trouble In the House of Google (Jeff’s the co-founder of Stack Overflow, a very popular Q&A site for IT professionals).

Anil Dash: Three’s a trend: The decline of Google search quality (Anil’s an all-round expert on web technology and a well respected blogger).

The general gist of the arguments is that when using search engines to find information online, users are increasingly coming up against spam content, which is simply advertising disguised as information.

Getting information you trust

A decline in the quality of search results wouldn’t appear at first glance to have that much of an impact on learning and performance professionals. After all, that’s not something we can impact upon. However, as our survey showed last year, search engines are the second most frequently used method by managers to help support them when they face a new challenge (after asking a colleague).

So, the decline in quality of the information available from search engines has two possible knock-on impacts. One is that it’s simply taking longer for managers to find the support they need to do their jobs. The other is that they’re using information from sources that might not be as trustworthy as they could be.

I’m pretty au fait with technology and how things work online. I use the more advanced search features that Google offers and often filter out sites by default. However, compared to three or four years ago, I tend to get far more of the information I trust from blogs I follow, the people I have in my LinkedIn, Twitter and other professional networks and from niche content resources aimed at people with a specific interest.

A(nother) paradigm change in how we find out about new and interesting things

This harks back to a more traditional, or ‘old fashioned’, way of uncovering good quality information: recommendations from your network and sources you know you can trust. That’s what social media taps into and why it’s taken off. Why go through the slow and painstaking process of trying to identify whether a source you’ve found on Google can be trusted, when you can simply ask someone you know is an expert to point you in the right direction?

Some involved in learning and development would say that this isn’t something they can do much about, but there are some actions that can make a difference. Here are three activities that would make a difference to people in any organisation:

  • provide people with good quality information sources that they can trust in the most common areas they need support [2]
  • make it easy for people to access expertise and trusted authorities
  • inform/train/show people how to access and evaluate information quickly and easily

Of course, this may not be necessary. Google might be on the cusp of releasing an update that will help people find the information they need, when they need it, perfectly, every time. I doubt it though, so until that happens, there’s still work for us to do.

Update: A couple more recent useful links for anyone who’s interested in this trend

Lifehacker poll showing that 77% of its readers believe that Google’s search results are less useful lately

Insightful article from Paul Kedrosky about the decline in search quality and the value of curation

[1] Although I refer to Google throughout, it’s just because of its ubiquity. I could be talking about Bing, Ask or any other ‘traditional’ search engine (that is, one based on Google’s success).

[2] For an indication of what managers look for across our online portals, take a look at what managers search for.