I didn’t think Google News (http://news.google.co.uk/) could get any worse but I was wrong. The previous revamp was bad enough: no more advanced search, useless and irrelevant personalisation options, and don’t even think about trying to set up sensible alerts. Alerts were never that good at the best of times but were not improved one iota by the changes. And then they altered the structure of the RSS feed URLs so that, supposedly, your existing feeds no longer worked. I don’t know why, but my old feeds are still delivering news and contain better quality information than the new ones I set up.
In the latest incarnation, Google News has lost most of my topics, the “For You” is total rubbish as is “Local”, you can no longer manage and personalise the topics (although that didn’t really work anyway), and the RSS feed buttons have gone. I can only assume that this is all down to the real time AI/ML that Google recently announced was going to be used to organize the news. (The new Google News: AI meets human intelligence ).
Existing RSS feeds still work, though and you can create email alerts for a news search if you run it from within the general Google results page. Run your search in “All” and then click on the News link. There is a Create Alert button at the bottom of your results, but one wonders how long that will last.
Someone should put Google News out of its misery, close it down and leave news searchable via the link on the main page.
And they may as well ditch Google Finance as well. That is a shadow of its former self : no more portfolios for monitoring stocks, no more historical data for viewing and download, no more news annotations on the price charts, and the comparison option only works for two stocks at a time. If you are interested in monitoring the stock markets or researching individual companies for free get thee hence to Yahoo! Finance (https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/). There was some doubt over the future of Yahoo! Finance when Yahoo! was acquired by Verizon and became part of Oath but, charting oddities aside, there does seem to be some development going on. The new “Sustainability” tab for example shows environment, social and governance (ESG) ratings from Sustainalytics (https://www.sustainalytics.com/). There was positive feedback on it from some business librarians who attended one of my recent workshops.
So many of Google’s services are going from bad to worse to totally pointless and unusable. No wonder, then, that people are starting to look seriously at alternative resources.
Google has made a major change to search and it does not bode well. Results are now based on your current location. So what’s new? Google has always looked at your location, even down to city/town level, and changed the results accordingly. That is fine if you are travelling and want to find the nearest Thai restaurant via your mobile, for example. Presenting a list of eateries in my home town of Reading is no good to me if I’m away in Manchester and getting very hungry!
The problems start if you are researching a person, company or industry based in a country other than your own – let’s use Norway as an example – or just want the latest news from that country. The trick used to be to go to the relevant country version of Google, in this case www.google.no, run your search and Google would give preference to Norwegian content. It is a great way to get alternative viewpoints on a topic and more relevant “local” information on a subject. Now, regardless of which version of Google you go to, you will see the same results tailored for your home location.
Today, we’ve updated the way we label country services on the mobile web, the Google app for iOS, and desktop Search and Maps. Now the choice of country service will no longer be indicated by domain. Instead, by default, you’ll be served the country service that corresponds to your location. So if you live in Australia, you’ll automatically receive the country service for Australia, but when you travel to New Zealand, your results will switch automatically to the country service for New Zealand. Upon return to Australia, you will seamlessly revert back to the Australian country service.
This confirms that mobile search is what Google is concentrating on. After all it is, one assumes, where Google makes most of its money but it does not help professional researchers.
There is a way around it but it is rather long-winded. You need to go to Settings – use either the link in the bottom right hand corner of your Google home page or the one near the top of a search results page – and click on Advanced Search .
On the Advanced Search screen scroll down to “Then narrow your results by…” and use the pull down menu in the region box to select the country.
I ran a search on Brexit in google.co.uk, google.no and a few other country versions of Google. All gave me essentially the same results.
Using the region filter and selecting Norway as the country I am given the following by Google:
Notice, though, that Google is giving me English articles or English versions of them. Google has decided that I would prefer English articles and I have to scroll down to number 10 and beyond to see pages in Norwegian. To get a broader view of what is being said in Norway about Brexit I have to go back into settings, click on Languages and choose Norwegian/Norsk.
Oh – and you get slight different results if you go through a VPN and set Norway as the country.
What worries me even more is that Google could do away with the advanced search screen and the region filter with it.
We’re confident this change will improve your Search experience, automatically providing you with the most useful information based on your search query and other context, including location.
No, Google. You have just made things more difficult for those of us who conduct serious, in-depth research. The way I feel about this change at the moment is that if you were a person I would take a baseball bat to your head!
UPDATE: In response to David Pearson’s comment and reminder below.
Including a site command e.g. site:no in the search works relatively well for this particular example (Norway) and gives good but slightly different results. It will, of course, miss Norwegian sites that are registered as .com or other international domains. The amount of overlap (or lack of it) will vary depending on the country. It’s another one to add to the list of strategies, which I am sure will become longer, for dealing with this problem.
Voting in the UK election has finished and the results are in, but the dust has most definitely not settled. It looks as we in the UK are in for interesting times ahead. It would help those of us researching the various political parties and policies if Google could at least get the basics right, such as who is now the Member of Parliament for a particular constituency. I am in Reading East and we have switched from a Conservative MP to Labour (Matt Rodda). Out of curiosity, I tried a search in Google on Reading East constituency. This is what Google’s Knowledge Graph came up with:
I took this screenshot yesterday (Friday, 9th June) at around 8 a.m. and expected to see Rob Wilson given as the MP throughout . I was impressed, though, to see that the snippet from Wikipedia correctly gives Matt Rodda as our MP. Whoever had updated that entry was pretty quick off the mark. Possibly a Labour Party worker? The rest of the information, which is taken from Google’s database of “facts”, is either wrong, confusing or nonsensical.
“Member of Parliament: Rob Wilson” – wrong. But he was MP until around 4 a.m. on the 9th June when the result of the election in Reading East was announced, so perhaps I am expecting a little too much from Google to be that quick about updating its facts.
“Major settlement: Reading” – yes we are part of Reading but I find it strange that it is referred to as a major settlement rather than a town.
“Number of members: 1” – not sure why that is there as each constituency can only have one MP.
“Party: Conservative” – correct for Rob Wilson but the new MP is Labour.
“European Parliament constituency: South East England” – correct!
The final two lines “Replaced by:” and “Created from:” had me totally flummoxed. The entries are the same – Reading North, Reading South, Henley. Reading North and Reading South were constituencies formed by splitting the Reading constituency in 1950. They were then merged back into Reading in 1955, re-created in 1974, and in 1983 Reading East and West were formed (Yes, it’s complicated!). As for Henley, it is not even in the same county. I can only think that this comes from Caversham (now part of Reading East) being part of Oxfordshire until 1911, when it probably did fall within the Henley constituency. The “Replaced by” is wrong because Reading East has not been replaced by anything. Google can’t even blame a template that has to be filled in with information at all costs because different information appears in the Knowledge Graph depending on the constituency.
Here is the information for Aylesbury:
And the one for Guildford:
Going back to the how up to date the information is, how quickly does Google update their “facts”. Rob Wilson was still our MP mid Friday afternoon. I submitted feedback using the link that Google provides at the bottom of each Knowledge Graph but this morning (10th June) nothing had changed. I’ll update this posting when it does change.
I would hope that most people would look at the other links in the search results, in this case the latest news, but preferably a reliable authoritative source. The list of MPs on the UK Parliament website would be an obvious choice but might take a day to be updated after an election. Just don’t rely on Google to get it right.
Ok, we know that Google often does strange things with our searches but much of the time it is not obvious that something odd has happened. There are usually some “good enough” answers scattered through the first 20-30 results so that we shrug off the rest as “well, that’s Google for you”. Occasionally, though, one comes across a search that seems to break Google. One such example was reported on Twitter this morning by Rand Fishkin (@randfish). The search was
this is the best * on the internet
At the top of the first results page Google reported that it had found over a billion results but when @randfish moved to the next page Google showed just “2 of 12 results”! Whatever happened to the other billion or so?
I tried the search myself on my laptop and straightaway got three results but on repeating it that was reduced to two.
I repeated the search having logged out of my Google account, cleared cookies, used Incognito and different browsers. Same results.
I tried a phrase search and the number of hits increased to 17.
Then I removed the quotation marks, got back to my original set of two and ran Verbatim on it. Over a billion hits but, bizarrely, Google claimed to have gone straight page 2!
Note: you normally can’t see the number of results after you have run Verbatim because it is obscured by a second menu line. You can toggle between that menu and the number of hits by clicking on the Tools button.
Then I tried a phrase search followed by Verbatim: two results but different from my first set.
I could have gone on trying various advanced search commands but it is very clear that Google is having problems with this particular search. And, no, I have no idea what is going on here.
Search Engine Roundtable reports today that Google is advising against using the link operator in search. It seems that there have been complaints on Twitter and elsewhere that it is returning some odd results.
I have never been a fan of the command; it only ever returned a small sample of pages that link to a known page, so I don’t mention it in my workshops unless asked about it by one of the participants. When I saw the advice from Google I gave it a final go on my own domain rba.co.uk and got nearly 300,000 hits. “Wow,” I thought, “amazing!” Glancing through the first few results it became obvious that Google had ignored all the punctuation and was running a text search and looking for variations on rba including RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland).
No great loss, but a sign that other more useful operators and commands may be for the chop.
This is my usual Christmas/New Year reminder to never trust Google’s answers (or Bing’s) on opening times of shops over the holiday season, especially if you are thinking of visiting small, local, independent shops.
I was contemplating going to our True Food Co-operative but suspected that it might still be shut. A search on my laptop for True Food Emmer Green opening times gave me a link to their website at the top of the results list. On the right hand side was a knowledge graph with information on the shop, it’s opening times and reviews that had been compiled from a variety of sources . For most of it the source of the information is not given. On my mobile and tablet it is the knowledge graph that appears at the top of the results list and takes up the first couple of screens.
It claims that the shop is “Open today 10am-6pm” [today is Thursday, 29th December].
When I go to True Food’s website it clearly states near the top of the home page that they are currently closed and re-opening on 4th January 2017.
Google gets it wrong again in the knowledge graph but so does Bing. So, always check the shop’s own website, and if you are searching on your mobile or tablet please make the effort to scroll down a couple of screens to get to links to more reliable information.
The contract for our domestic electricity supply is ending next month so I am trawling through cost comparison and energy supplier websites to check tariffs for our next contract. (UK readers can skip the rest of this explanatory paragraph). I don’t know what the situation is in other countries but in the UK the gas and electricity suppliers are forever inventing a variety of tariffs priced significantly less than their “standard” rates to entice you to sign up. The lower priced tariffs are generally only available for a year, or two years at most. At the end of the contract the customer is usually transferred to the more expensive standard rate unless they actively seek out an alternative. The existing supplier is obliged to inform the customer of the new tariffs that will be on offer but the onus is on the customer to inform the company which tariff, if any, they wish to switch to. For other suppliers’ tariffs the customer has to do their own research.
Price comparison sites are a good starting point to identify potential alternatives but the only way to check that the a tariff meets all of your criteria, of which price may be just one of many, is to go direct to the supplier’s website. Today I spent most of the morning drawing up the shortlist.
The next step in my strategy was to look at customer reviews on the comparison websites, social media, discussion boards and to run a Google search on each supplier. The reviews and comments generally spanned several years and while the history of a company’s customer service performance can be useful it is the last 12-18 months that are most relevant. This is where limiting the search to more recent information by using Google’s date option comes into play. Having spent an hour or so to get this far, and with my brain beginning to wilt, it was tempting to read just the Google snippets for the reviews; but they can convey the wrong overall impression. Google sometimes creates snippets by pulling together text from two or more sections of a page that may be separated by several paragraphs and which may be about completely different products or topics. Never take the snippet at face value and always click through to the original, full article.
One of the energy providers on my short list is Robin Hood Energy, which is a not-for profit company run by Nottingham City Council and has only recently been made available to customers outside of Nottingham. Customer reviews are therefore less plentiful than for many of the other utilities. The results from a search on
Robin Hood Energy customer reviews
included one from Simply Switch. Underneath the title and URL is a star rating of 4.4 from 221 reviews and one could be forgiven for assuming that this refers to Robin Hood Energy. This is reinforced by the text in the second half of the snippet: “Robin Hood guarantee their customers consistently low prices … rated 4.4/5 based on 221 reviews”.
The dots are important in that they represent a missing chunk of text between the two pieces of information. When I looked at the web page itself the rating was nowhere to be found in the main body of the text. It was in the footer of the page and referred to the Simply Switch site.
A reminder, then, to never rely on the snippets for an answer, and always click through and read the whole web page.
Google Blogger has done it again. A major update to the service was rolled out at the end of September and many users woke up to find that the links and blog lists they had so carefully created had gone. See the Blogger Help Forum for some of the postings and comments on the incident. Blogger engineers are supposedly working to restore the lost information but it “may take up to several days.” Or never! This is not the first time that blog content has gone missing after an update. A few years ago an update somehow removed the most recent posts from people’s blogs. Most of them were eventually recovered but a few disappeared without trace.
The lesson learned from that experience was back up your blog. In Blogger the import and backup tool is under Settings, Other and at the top of the page. Note, though that this will only backup the text of pages, posts and comments. It does not backup any changes you have made to the template, or the content of the gadgets in your sidebars such as links lists and blogrolls. For the template click on Template in the lefthand sidebar and then on Backup/Restore. This will save the general layout of the gadgets but not the content. For that you will need to copy and save the content for each gadget or save a copy of the content and HTML of your blog. Back up your Blogger blog: photos, posts, template, and gadgets has details of what you need to do.
If you don’t have a copy of your lists of links then see if you can access an older cached version of your blog via Google or Bing and save the whole page, or take screen shots. If you try this several days after the event you may be out of luck. Mine were still in the cached page for up to 2 days but have now gone. In Google, use the ‘cache:’ command, for example:
An alternative is to search for your blog and next to your entry in the results lists there should be a small downward pointing green arrow. Click on it and then on the ‘Cached’ text to view the page. This works in both Google and Bing and, again, the sooner you do this the better.
If none of that works then try the Wayback Machine. Type in the URL of your blog and see if they have any snapshots.
Still no joy? Then either hang around a while longer to see if the Blogger engineers manage to revive your lists or start rebuilding them from scratch. If you haven’t looked at them in a while, maybe now is the time to review the content anyway.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the problems I was having with Google Verbatim (Google Verbatim on the way out?). This morning I ran through a checklist of commands that I am demonstrating in a webinar and it seems that Verbatim is back working as it should. Don’t hold your breath, though. Three times this year I have seen Google Verbatim disappear or do strange things and a couple weeks later return to normal. Verbatim may be here to stay or it may not, but you cannot depend on many advanced search commands to always work as you expect. So either learn different ways of making Google treat your search in the way you require or use a different search engine.
Unfortunately, disappearing or unreliable functionality is not confined to just Google. Bing used to have a very useful proximity command that allowed you to specify how close you wanted your words to be to one another. The “near:n” operator is still listed in Bing’s list of advanced search commands and, although it seems to do something and reduce the number of results, it does not behave as described.
There is also the endangered list such as DuckDuckGo’s sort by date option. In fact all of DuckDuckGo’s web search options will probably soon change or disappear as it is currently powered by Yahoo! which has been bought by Verizon. Who will DuckDuckGo turn to if Verizon does combine Yahoo with AOL as has been stated in the press?
Get to know several different search tools really well and, for the ones that you use regularly, find out how they work and who provides the search results.
Update: 1st September 2016 – Verbatim seems now to be working as it should. I hope it stays that way but on three occasions this year I have seen it work one day, then not the next and then back to working again.
We have become accustomed to Google rewriting and messing about with our searches, and dropping search features that are infrequently used. The one option that could control most of Google’s creative interpretation of our queries was Verbatim but that now looks as though it could be destined for the axe as well.
A reminder of what Verbatim does. If you want to stop Google looking for variations on your terms, ignoring double quote marks around phrases, or dropping words from the search Verbatim is, or rather was, the quickest way to do it. If you are using a desktop or a laptop computer, run your search as normal. On the results page click on ‘Search Tools’ at the end of the line of options that appears at the top. Then, from the second line of options that should appear, choose ‘All results’ followed by Verbatim. The location of Verbatim on other devices varies.
Verbatim has been invaluable when searching on titles of research papers, legislation or researching topics for which you expect or want to retrieve very few or zero results. You might be researching rare adverse events associated with a pharmaceutical drug or wanting to confirm that what you are about to patent has not already been published and is out there for all to see. Or the topic is so specific that you only expect to see a handful of documents, if that. So, sometimes, no or a low number of results is a good thing. But Google does not like zero or small numbers of results and that is when Google’s search rewrite goes into overdrive.
I had noticed for a few months that Verbatim was not always working as expected but had hoped it was one of Google’s experiments. The problem has not gone away and the really confusing part is that Verbatim is still doing something but not what I would expect.
I was working in Penryn in July and took the opportunity to wander around the place. Inevitably, I googled some of the sites I had seen for further information but one threw up the Verbatim problem. I was particularly interested in what looked like a memorial but didn’t have time to seek out information on site. Looking at the photo afterwards I can where the plaque was (to the right and next to the flagpole) but I missed it on the day.
I did see a sign on the wall surrounding the area, though, telling me that it was “two” on the Penryn Heritage Trail.
A quick, basic search told me that it is called the Memorial Garden but I wanted to find out more. I searched on Penryn memorial garden heritage trail.
This gave me 15,900 results but Google had decided to leave out Penryn so I was seeing plenty of information about heritage trails but they were not all in Penryn. I prefixed Penryn with intext: to force Google to include it in the search but then the word heritage was dropped. I applied Verbatim to the search without the intext: command.
This gave me 732 results but even though I had applied Verbatim Google had dropped ‘memorial’ from the search. I prefixed memorial with intext: and got 1230 results with little change to the top entries. And no, I have no idea why there are more hits for this more specific search. I can only assume that other terms were omitted but I was not seeing that in my top 50. I then did what I should have done right from the start and searched on Penryn, and “memorial garden” and “heritage trail” as phrases. When Verbatim was applied this came back with 22 results but no detailed information about the garden. I started to tweak the search terms a little more. Verbatim would drop one, I would ‘intext:’ them and they were then included but I began to suspect that I was being too specific. So I dropped “heritage trail” from the search and cleared Verbatim: 19,300 results with all of the top entries being relevant and informative.
This emphasises that it often pays to keep your search simple, and I mean really simple. Including too many terms, however relevant you may think they are, can be counter-productive. I would have realised earlier that my strategy was too complex had Verbatim behaved as I assumed it would and it had included all of my terms with no variations or omissions.
I ran a few of my test searches to see if this is now a regular feature. One was:
prevalence occupational asthma diagnosis agriculture UK
The results came back as follows:
Ordinary search – prevalence missing from some of the documents, 1,750,000 results
Verbatim search – diagnosis and agriculture missing from some of the documents, 15,300 results
Verbatim with quote marks around missing terms – same results as plain Verbatim with diagnosis and agriculture still missing
Verbatim search but prefixing missing terms with intext:, 14,200 results
I changed the search slightly to:
incidence occupational asthma diagnosis agriculture UK
Some of the results were:
Ordinary search – incidence and agriculture missing from some of the documents, 2,210,000 results
Verbatim search – incidence and agriculture missing, 15,500 results
Ordinary search on intext: incidence occupational asthma diagnosis intext:agriculture UK, 848,000 results
Verbatim intext:incidence occupational asthma diagnosis intext:agriculture UK, 15,000 results
I saw the same pattern with a few other searches. I also tested the searches in incognito mode, and both signed in and signed out of my Google account. There was very little difference in the results and Verbatim behaved in the same way.
It looks as though Verbatim still runs your search without any variations on your terms or synonyms but that it now sometimes chooses to omit terms from some of the documents. To keep those terms in the search you have to prefix them with intext:. Double quote marks around the words are sometimes ignored. This is an unnecessary change and defeats the object of having an option such as Verbatim.
More worrying, though, is that Google obviously thinks Verbatim needs “fixing”. But what it has done is to make the option more difficult to use, which in turn will result in people using it less often than they do already. And if Google sees that use is decreasing it will simply get rid of it altogether. Time to swot up on the few remaining Google commands, or use a different search tool.