Why Google Is Broken

This week we are showing you the 10 most popular posts of 2014 on State of Digital. The top 10 is based on a combination of reading numbers, shares and comments.

This is number 8, by Gianluca Fiorelli, about how ‘bad’ Google can be.
Originally posted: April 23, 2014, 10:45


No, this post has not being written by Barry Adams, even if I think he will agree with my conclusions. [Yes he does – Ed.]

Although I don’t not always see a second hidden motive in every action that Google does, as I have said many times in the past I try to keep a critical and healthy “conspiranoic” eye with respect to what Google does.

Personally, I consider it is a great search engine. It is far from perfect (nothing is), but it is the best option we have available. Even if it caused pain to us, Google’s attempts to address the spam issue in its SERPs have improved the overall search experience… but that effort was not the same everywhere.

When we talk about Google, we should always distinguish between Google.com and the regional Google versions.

Most of the things we daily talk about and discuss concern only the first, but in many cases do not have a real correspondence, for example, in Google.es or Google.it. And that means that the regional Googles do not offer that quality Google pretends to offer to all its users.

For example, the in-depth articles box is only present in Google.com and, from a few weeks, in Google.co.uk. Or, as Google itself warns, not all of Google Now cards are available in all countries.

Obviously, these differences between Google.com and its regional versions are annoying, because they prevent us to take advantage of attractive marketing opportunities, and we must wait to be able to finally use them.

But there are other “differences” that make the regional Googles broken, because they affect directly the quality of search experience.

The forgotten EMD update

Let me remind you of the more recent history of Google, and I apologize already if you’ll find it “hasty”.

The Google Spam Update Sequence

After Caffeine , the SERPs were inundated with results of dubious quality. Google, therefore, tried to correct this with a series of updates.

The first was Panda (and just before it the ” Scraper update”). Thanks to it the SERPs were cleaned of documents with thin content, which did not offer real value to users and whose sole purpose belgiquepharmacie.be was to rank for the largest number of keywords. (Do you remember Demand Media and EHow?)

The quality improved, but not that much. Those documents, in fact, were mostly replaced by those that based their strength on manipulative link building tactics.

For this reason Google introduced Penguin.

And, in case that Penguin alone was not able to definitively eradicate the effects of link spam, Google has dramatically increased the number of manual penalties and actions against everything that Google tends to be defined as a link network (hence guest blogging platforms too).

With the SERPs “cleaned” of thin and poor value search results (Panda ) and the result of link spam results (Penguin), the quality has improved … but not that much.

As in a nightmare without an end, their place wasn’t taken by  immaculate and highly valuable web documents. No, for the most part we began to see how the good old exact match domains sites conquered the SERPs.

Sisyphus Google

As if it was Sisyphus, Google, therefore , launched the EMD update.

But it launched only on Google.com and for English queries, forgetting the regional Googles; and more than one year an half has passed.

I know what could be the answer of Matt Cutts: We have cleaned the regional Googles SERPs thanks to Panda, Penguin, link networks ban, devaluing article marketing sites et al, we don’t need to roll out EMD as they affect just a tiny percentage of the queries.

The problem is that Matt Cutts is in Mountain View and doesn’t deal with European Googles every day as I (and you, readers) do.

Let’s try this search (Dentisti Italia) in Google.it. We will easily see how EMDs dominate the first page.

02 dentisti italia   Cerca con Google

I think that all of you have examples like that one (maybe you could share them in the comments).

Let me tell one thing, though. EMD by themselves are not bad, not at all. But we all know how EMDs tend to rank quite easily even without a strong link profile. More over, many EMD sites were able to create a brand around their own exact match domain name: for instance Booking.com technically could be considered an EMD, or the Spanish Coches.net, but both created a recognized brand with their name, so that we cannot consider them as “real” EMDs.

Therefore, even if licit EMDs exist, it is quite easy also for not-valuable sites (I don’t want to call them “spam sites”, as they aren’t necessarily so) to outrank more valuable ones, making some Google SERPs almost useless.

The Hummingbird glitch?

There is also another problem that since some time now is affecting Google, especially those that share the language used such as it is, for example, Spanish.

As a Spanish SEO friend of mine, Miguel Lopez noticed, if we do a search for “lamparas hospitalarias” (hospital lamps) in Google.es, the results are filled with sites from Venezuela, Panama or Mexico.

lamparas hospitalarias   Buscar con Google

Note how some of these not-Spanish ranking sites are not generic domains, but ccTLDs, therefore sites that should be targeting by default their respective Googles, not Google.es.

This “geo-targeting” confusion is not just affecting less common queries like that one, but also also more generic terms like “carro”

The  word “carro” has different meanings depending if it is used in Spain or Latin America. In Spain it means “bandwagon”, in Latin American Spanish it is synonym of “car”.

Let’s now see what kind of SERP Google presents if we search “Venta de carros” in Google.es (venta = buy).

venta de carros   Buscar con Google


The results are even more ridiculous if we just search “carro”:

carro   Buscar con Google

Where are the bandwagons, Google?

Ok, I may understand that people right now are not used to buy bandwagons, but offering to buy cars in Venezuela or some other Latin American country to the Spanish audience in Spain makes no sense (and I don’t think that those sites are really interested in selling cars to someone in Madrid or Barcelona).

Sincerely, though, this is not even my main concern. That these kind of glitches are possible is telling us that there’s a problem with Hummingbird.

Why Hummingbird? First of all because these geo-targeting mistakes by Google, randomly present also in the past, have become more and more common after Hummingbird went live.

From the very few things we know about how Hummingbird works, we know that semantics play a big role. But also that search and named entities understanding by Google, as word-coupling and, possibly, knowledge base.

That means that Google – probably – is relying on just one big Spanish dictionary, which includes all the nuances/synonyms of the Castilian (Spanish, Mexican, Colombian, et al), but also – in the case of “carro” – that Google is relying on how users commonly  use a term. Therefore, if 500+ million users mean “car” when saying “carro”, then “venta de carros” will probably mean “buy cars” and not “buy bandwagons”, which is what only less than 50+ users in Spain are meaning (and not that frequently).

The terrible thing is that, somehow, this way of writing the SERPs is almost not considering what Google itself suggests in terms of geo-localization (these results are so also on mobile, where geo-targeting should be even stronger than on desktop). Therefore we see .com.ve or .com.mx or generic domains in Spanish but clearly targeting Latin American countries ranking in .es and even outranking .es websites.

System Failure

This reminds me of when Caffeine was rolled out, being the reasons the poor quality of how sites in general deal with geo-targeting and the apparent impossibility by Google to really understand the patterns a language may have, and the somehow short circuit existing between the “rules” commanding Hummingbird and the ones commanding classic International SEO. Especially geo-targeted links don’t seem to help Google as much as before in determining for what region a site is specifically designed for.

These issues, quite possibly caused by Hummingbird, are evident in all Spanish Googles, but if my theory is correct it could be affecting also the French and German ones, and even the regional English based Googles, as you may confirm (or not) in the comments.


The regional Googles are broken.

And it is particularly a deception seeing how “latin-language-based” Googles and regional ones in general tend to be considered a B-Series market by Google.

I may understand that Google.com is economically more important, I may understand that owning almost the 99% of the search market share may discourage from paying that same constant attention than in markets where you “only” own the 67.5% of it (data by ComScore), but the frustration both as search marketer and user is getting bigger and bigger:

  1. as a search marketer I cannot simply tell “Google is broken” to my clients;
  2. as a user – at least in Italy and Spain – Google is far from being the flawless Star Trek computer its sales pitch pretends it is.

Google, I love you buying Nest, putting balloons in the stratosphere and thinking about robotics… but what about investing even a small percentage of your 15.42 billion USD earnings in this first quarter in native engineers, and opening local webspam offices for finally solving the quality issues of your regional search engines?

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About Gianluca Fiorelli

Gianluca Fiorelli is an SEO and Web Marketing Strategist, who operates in the Italian, Spanish and English speaking countries market. He also works regularly as independent consultant with bigger international SEO agencies.

37 thoughts on “Why Google Is Broken

  1. Yes Gianluca, I definitely agree. Been seeing the regional Google versions falling behind the curve as Google focuses its attention on the main .com search engine. Even sometimes in the .co.uk version we see some results from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa thrown in that really don’t belong there, though admittedly it’s not nearly as big an issue as you show it is with the Spanish Google versions.

    I suppose it all harks back to the insular navel-gazing Silicon Valley culture they’re cultivating at the Googleplex, where only techno-fetishistic (and profoundly American) libertarian utopianism is allowed, and any critical insight reflecting on the real multilingual and multicultural world is rejected.

  2. Very good article Gianluca I think we can suggest googles developers about this problems so they will repair them. Because that can be a problem for us but also for local costumers. I will do a similar test form the Google.al to see waht happens 😀

  3. And why not talking about any terms that include Wiki lead to Wikipedia results?
    Wikipedia is not the only Wiki in the world 🙂

    We also have to say that Penguin has been lightened recently making a lot of spammy link building works.
    This is so frustrating, but the worst part is that they mark as unnatural lots of natural link thanks to the ignorance of the spam team.

    1. Hi Andrea!

      I agree with you about the false positives. It seems as if quality raters (I suspects its their fault and not directly a webspam team’s one) flag as unnatural practically every link from sites like forums.
      Personally I’ve seen how many of those links, instead, are naturally earned by the linked sites, therefore they should not be considered “toxic”.
      Google, maybe, should understand that there are exceptions to their general rules (and that exceptions, as popularly we say in Italy, confirm the rules).

    2. You understand that Penguin hasn’t run for almost 6 months so what you just wrote is IMPOSSIBLE! I would say like many others who say negative things about what **they think** are unnatural links are not Google mistakes but the people making these statements. Google decides what is spam and IME, most people are in these messes because they have never seen a link they didn’t want or like!

      1. How do you know that my recently refer to less than 6 months ago?
        Are you making the same mistake that you’re attributing to me? Pretty curious no?

        Dear Terry I think you’re on the wrong way.

  4. Same happen here in Bulgaria. Because our language is closer to Russian and Ukrainian sometime i’ve seen their results for Bulgarian SERP. Ok – it’s rare but happen.

  5. I think Google instead of trying to pursue SEO’s to stop spamming and search engine manipulation should spend that energy on educating his customers.

    If you’re looking for an used car in Italy, don’t google “used car”, you might like to try with “Used cars in -my local town- -my country-” and get so much better results.

    Most apps nowadays focus on ‘user experience’ trying to simplify everything and sometimes the only thing the client needs is being told about propper ways of using the tool.

    1. Mmm… right now – especially on mobile – what we see in Google.com (and for a good bunch of queries in the regional Googles too) is that Google has become quite good in personalizing the search experience, therefore if I search for “Pizza”, it knows very well that I mean “What are the pizzeria in Valencia close to me?”.
      And users understood this ability Google has very fast and well. And just typing (or saying) one word is far more faster and easier for the users.
      The problem is that Google has serious problems in applying all its semantic technology to languages that aren’t American English, being it very different.
      That’s why, maybe, that Google has started hiring people with humanistic background like experts in linguistic, semiotics and semiology.

  6. An old discussion still very actual, it’s about 2 years we in Italy are waiting for EMD update but thay care only about pushing the backlinks-terror. In my opinion I see constant posts complaining about Google, everyday more posts than the day before. Maybe the Bing/alternative time is arrived? I hope so, monopoly has never done any good to anyone

  7. Great post Gianluca! For someone who doesn’t do much SEO it’s fascinating to read about the differences in Googles. As Giovanni mentioned below, does this give Bing an opportunity? Do you feel that they do a better job locally? Or is the reality that you don’t have any alternatives?

    1. Even if I really like “Bingers” like Duane Forrester, I still consider Bing a very buggy search engine in its not american-english versions.
      It’s true, the Bing social graph and its version of Knowledge Graph are very good (and useful), but the organic search still seems overly too much depending on a literal understanding of keywords, which – many times – can results in weird SERPs.

  8. Annoyingly, this happens within the U.S., too. I live outside of Portland ME, and if I search for anything with “Portland” the default is Oregon. And this happens when I’m signed into Google. You’d think my IP address would suffice. Anyway, in certain instances the local carousel results are starting to figure it out, but the results are not useful at all.

  9. You are beyond correct. As we specialize in Local SEO, EMD is our nightmare. Look at these results below for something as simple as Dana Point Plumber. Looking at basic stats alone, google is not delivering top results. Instead, EMD is running rampant for local SEO. I can think of multiple examples of this across every city in the US. (i think you just inspired a post for EMD and local SEO.)

  10. There is a bit of the old ‘two steps forward, one step backward’ pattern for Google’s recent algo changes when it comes to non-US results. It also opens up a line of argument regarding Google bias-are foreign search customers ‘second class citizens’? Why not apply the same technology and updates across the board?

    1. I may understand that rolling an update at the same time globally can be impossible due to the regional differences that may exist. So, somehow, a delay must from Google must be understood.
      What cannot be understood is the huge amount of time Google takes to extend its updates to all its versions.
      What cannot be understood is how it doesn’t have a strong native search quality teams in the countries Google is present and working exclusively on the quality of its regional versions.

  11. Don’t feel bad. The main Google is broken, too. Hummingbird is horrible. I can’t wait for the next critter to rear its ugly little head. Surely they can’t do worse than this (hmmmm).

  12. Not much consolation, but .co.uk isn’t doing that much better. I’m sending feedback after feedback highlighting SERPs results where up to half of the 1st page results (for ‘buying’ queries as opposed to ‘question’ queries – question queries I guess are largely valid from anywhere) are from the US. I don’t remember this being such an issue in the past (or maybe I’m mis-remembering?).

    Add this to the ‘owning the SERPs’ happening (once again for buying terms) by just a couple of well known sites and the results are poor I’m afraid IMO. I recently did a search where only 1 result on the 1st page was not one of these two brands and UK based and only 3 results on page 2.

    I’ve personally gone from about 90% Google to about 50/50.

  13. Interesting to see this right now – I’ve been experiencing a lot of issues with a new client who’s .co.uk can’t compete with their competitor’s .com. Having been through the wringer trying to identify all the variables at work, it seems that Google favors language over location as a rule despite their suggestions for localized international search.

    I can only hope that the international info they provide indicates that eventually it’ll be a priority.

  14. Thanks for the post, we see the same problem within the dutch and belgian market as well. Here they are even more left behind (I don’t think many people speak dutch within mountain view 😉 )

    The .co domain name you mentioned I think is a funny one, as many american (Californian) companies are using it more and more as a generic shorter version for .com. I’m afraid Google started to treat it as well a generic domain.

  15. As with other companies and organizations, nothing can be perfected. All these geo targetting efforts of google has also made a much greater impact in making sure the content is relevant and within reach if action is needed.But I would agree that a great idea should be maintained, thus, Google should set up teams that are dedicated to fixing issues like these.

  16. Same thing happening in New Zealand. A search for “outdoor dining chairs” on Google.co.nz and 7 of the top 10 results are from overseas. Ridiculously hard explaining this to a client!!

  17. Great post Gianluca, lots of valid points.
    BUT the car example if heavily biased! “Carros” is exclusivly used in latin america (Venezuela foremost), in Spain you would search/optimize for “coche” and nothing else. Just to be fair…

  18. Great post Gianluca,

    Even in the UK EMDs are still lurking around in SERPs where you can see straight away they are in a rank position that they simply should not hold – I’ve spoken about this quite a few times in the past.

    One .co.uk I have just researched has a PA of 30 a DA of 30 (Oh My God), RD links of 11 and yet it is out ranking a site below it in the SERPs which is PA 37 DA 100 (.gov uk site) and RDs of 500k+ (against the sites DA) – And it has been like this for what 2+ years! The only thing going for it is that it is an EMD against the target search query.

    Not good – come on Google wise up!


  19. Great post Gianluca, and reassuring to know that the problem doesn’t just exist here in Latin America. When I see things like the 3rd organic listing in Google.com.pe for “televisiones” to be for a list of the top TV stations in Spain, it just makes me quite sad. In countries where more than 90% of searchers prefer Google, you’d expect at least a little more love. Un abrazo.

  20. Speaking for google.ca / Canada – this is sometimes a problem, but thanks to both our proximity and NAFTA it’s not as big a deal I think. A lot of big brands are both sides of the border.

    It is certainly an issue at times though. It’s particularly annoying when sites don’t provide good interlinking between countries. So you end up on domain.com/product-you-are-interested-in and either click or get redirected to domain.ca – the same product is available, but now you have to hunt through the site.

    The other annoying thing is Canadians can often order from American sites, but where Americans get free shipping, Canadians pay a ridiculously high premium on shipping. Also NAFTA only applies to locally made goods, so something made in china is going to need even more duties paid when it crosses the Canadian border from the US.

  21. I think Google believes it is doing everything to help every to toll the line, even if it is said to be broken, I suppose they think they are doing great job

  22. I don’t what Google rolled out in the last few months, but I see a lot more .co.uk sites in the .com.au results than I used to. As a .com.au business it’s frustrating to see UK companies that don’t even deliver to Australia taking up prime space on the first page. At the end of last year it was working beautifully, but this year seems like 2005!

  23. I’ve been thinking about regional Google versions lately. For example, Google.ru is a good search engine but it differs a lot from Google.com. The Russian market also has Yandex, so I believe Google would only benefit from improving its RU version and taking more market share as a result. I wouldn’t even talk about Google.by (for Belarus, my native country), that one is horrible! It’s like Google.com of the 90es so I don’t use it at all now.

  24. I never seen in my life so many poor quality results in organic search, regarding google.it. Almost all niches are involved, the exact match domain or subdomain still work and the AMD is totally unknown. Also the local search is compromised and the organic search results are really poor, dated and full of useless contents.

  25. i have a difficult time reading blog posts that have typos within the very first sentence.

  26. Not just the first sentence, but the SECOND sentence, too!! ,
    “this post has NOT BEING written by Barry Adams…”
    “Although I DON’T NOT always see…”

  27. I see that English probably isn’t your first language, but maybe hire an editor before posting or something.

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