Google execs admit users are ‘not quite happy’ with search experience after Reddit blackouts

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Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address at the Google I/O developers conference at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, May 10, 2023.
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Google users have long been able to append their search queries with the term “Reddit” to find helpful resources on specific topics.

When thousands of Reddit forums went dark earlier this month, that tactic lost its effectiveness. Many pages in search results were suddenly inaccessible or unhelpful, because moderators of some of the most popular forums turned their pages to private as part of a widespread protest of Reddit’s decision to start charging developers for access to its data.

It’s an issue that Google executives say is at least partially resolved by a new feature called Perspectives that was unveiled on Monday. The Perspectives tab, available now on mobile web and the Google app in the U.S., promises to surface discussion forums and videos from social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Reddit and Quora.

At an all-hands meeting earlier this month, Prabhakar Raghavan, Google’s senior vice president in charge of search, told employees that the company was working on ways for search to display helpful resources in results without requiring users to add “Reddit” to their searches. Raghavan acknowledged that users had grown frustrated with the experience.

“Many of you may wonder how we have a search team that’s iterating and building all this new stuff and yet somehow, users are still not quite happy,” Raghavan said. “We need to make users happy.”

Raghavan was responding to an employee comment about negative user feedback because of too many ads and irrelevant results. “What can we do to improve the user experience on the core product that made Google a household name?” the employee asked, according to audio of the meeting obtained by CNBC.

Google is in the process of trying to revamp search to keep pace with rivals in taking advantage of the latest advances in generative artificial intelligence, which involves providing more sophisticated and conversational answers to text-based queries.

At its annual developer conference in May, the company said it was experimenting with an effort called Search Generative Experience, which still isn’t available to the public, showing more in-depth results powered by generative AI. Google also launched a ChatGPT competitor called Bard earlier this year. Bard remains separate from search and is still in experimental mode.

Prabhakar Raghavan, of Google Inc., speaks during the company’s Cloud Next ’18 event in San Francisco, California, July 24, 2018.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Another employee question in the companywide meeting asked if Google can more easily surface “authentic discussion” since the “Reddit blackout” was making it harder to find such content.

CEO Sundar Pichai chimed in to to say that users don’t want “blue links” as much as they want “more comprehensive answers.” That’s why they add the name of forum sites like Reddit to their searches, he said.

HJ Kim, vice president of engineering in search, said at the meeting that users have been asking for more content from sites like Reddit. He said the Perspectives tab is one feature the company has been working on in response, but that it can do a better job.

“Over the last couple of years, search overall has developed these large, cross-functional teams to go after this kind of content,” Kim said, referring to Reddit. “We could do a better job. We realize that. And over the last couple of years, we’ve actually developed quite a bit.”

Raghavan said that Google would determine what’s “getting the best traction.”

“But the idea there is for these questions, where there are multiple opinions, instead of appending stuff, you actually go in there and get the answer right away and we’re actually seeing good early engagement on that,” Raghavan said.

He added that while the company is spending a lot of time in AI, it’s not the only answer to the problem.

“Generative AI is one aspect but it won’t fully solve this issue — I want to be clear,” he said. “We actually have teams that are running experiments,” with Perspectives as one example.

“We have to keep up and do a better job of addressing these new and emerging needs,” he said.

Lara Levin, a Google spokeswoman, told CNBC in a statement that “we’re always improving Search to meet the evolving needs of every one of our users.”

“Features like the Perspectives filter are part of how we’re making sure people continue to find the most helpful info on Google from a wide range of sources and formats,” Levin said.

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