September 3, 2014 | Sarah Danks

I remember one of the first times I ever used a search engine (Netscape Navigator, remember that?!) to look up information. It was during English class my junior year of high school (for those of you who’d like to know how old that makes me, this would’ve been in the year nineteen-hundred-and-ninety-five. Or ninety-six…). We were analyzing some book or another and our teacher wanted to look up some more information, so we headed to the library so we could “check out what this INTERNET is all about.

Since I was comfortable around computers I was chosen to perform said search (I don’t remember what it was; we were looking for references of some sort). I typed in my query, clicked “ok” and waited for the wealth of knowledge to appear…

netscape navigator early 1997

Of course, the search engine results page we got back then was, well, to put it mildly, about 1,000 light years away from what we have now. I think we got one page with a yellow background that included a bunch of bluish-purple line items of information, none of which was even click-able! I remember my teacher asking, “Well, what’s the point of all this if we can’t find MORE information than what’s listed here?” (I.e., I think he was wondering why there weren’t any hyperlinks on the page!)

Fast forward about 18 years and here we are, eons evolved from those long-ago days of caveman SERPs. Now, you not only get clickable results (and a myriad of them), sometimes the search engines — who’m I kidding, it’s just Google (for now) even answers your question right there. No need to click!

What do I mean? Oh, I’m sure you’ve run across the oh-so-friendly Google feature wherein it answers a question for you. And, with how busy-busy we are these days, who can be bothered to click on a website anymore, when Google will answer your question right in the SERP?

google answers what are pistils

There’s no need to even peruse or click through to the websites in the SERP, since Google decided to tell us the answer to our question front-and-center. I’m confused as to WHERE this definition came from, however. Merriam-Webster? Oxford?

The debate is solved easily enough:

what dictionary does google use

Sweet. Things sure have changed since high school (believe me)…so obviously this type of result doesn’t occur for every search — as of right now, it’s only showing for certain types of queries (namely, “what are/is…” or “how to…”). Here are a few more examples:

google answers how to make french toast

google answers what are branches of government

google answers how to mow lawn

But, hang on a tic…since two of those queries are “how to…” focused, definitions don’t really fit, so dictionary references are out. Even for the branches of government question, Google’s pulling information from other websites for the data. Which begs the question: how does Google determine WHICH website gets the extremely high honor of answering a user’s query right in the SERP?

And, what if I don’t like the answer given in the website that was chosen to answer my question? For example:

google answers how to measure a horse

As a horseback rider of many years, knowing how to measure a horse is old (cowgirl) hat to me. I asked Google anyway (just to see what It would say), and I don’t like the “answer” chosen for me. Let’s forget for a second the first part of the answer starts with, “…the problem with this type of measuring is that…” Nice. Doesn’t inspire much confidence in the answer, does it? Of course, Google’s pulled a snippet of text off the page, so if you continue reading you realize the real answer begins after that first negative sentence. However, while it might seem (somewhat) clear to me, a horse person, to someone who doesn’t know horses this is a confusing definition and there’s no “how to” to be found.

So, not a great result. But what to do about it? At least there’s a (little) “Feedback” link:

google feedback for question in SERP

I went ahead and gave my two cents’ worth on that result, although in the Learn More section I was told, “Your input won’t directly influence the ranking of any single page.” Yeah, yeah, I get it.

Another example of a poor choice by Google for answering a question directly in the SERP was called out yesterday by Danny Sullivan in his Search Engine Land article. Turns out the website Google chose to describe “how to eat sushi“* has a swear in it:


google answers how to eat sushi

Okay, so it’s not as big of a deal over here in the U.S., where we don’t use that term (so it doesn’t have the connotation it does over in the UK). But, if Google supplies THIS type of answer right away in my SERP with that kind of a term in it, and then won’t offer me auto-complete or even any suggestions when I search for WHAT it actually is, on account of it being a naughty word…it’s likely you shouldn’t be including that term in your “definition,” Google.

google search for what is wanker

Fie for shame.

So, what’s the point? Well, obviously search engines have come a long way in 20 years…but more than that, while they’re making leaps and bounds in usability, not all they do (or try to do) is successful or the best result.

What other questions has Google answered for you in a less-than-satisfactory way?


*As of this morning this answer was still showing, but it’s since been removed. So, it seems you CAN influence the “ranking” of a single website after all…




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