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Optimizing for time waste

by osk at 2023/02/16 (Thu) 9:42:58 pmPERSONAL

Ever noticed that when you click a link on Google, then come back to try and click the next link, a box with similar search queries spawns in about a second later, right as you're about to click the next link, causing you go be sent off to an entirely different search query?

It's been around for quite a while (early 2018), and despite constant complaints from users, to the point there's even an extension that disables it, it doesn't seem to be on its way out any time soon, either. Why, when this "feature" is among the most hated parts of all of Google Search? Why, when Google themselves don't just advise against doing this, but actively lowers pages that do this in search results? Even if they're an Agile™ company, an error like this wouldn't fall through the cracks, let alone with such hypocricy, right?

And the more you look, the more strange events like these pop up—take for example the categories ("Web", "Images", "News", "Shopping"...); it is almost never to anyone's benefit to randomize the order of these should-be-stable elements, let alone stuff a bunch of other junk in there (indistinguishable from the thing you wanted):

What's going on here? These aren't reverted like the usual "oops"es, so why is Google actively trying to divert you from your task, from the answer you seek? And while we're at it... doesn't it feel like Google Search used to be...better? A lot of results nowadays are just (seemingly) autogenerated spam, made specifically to cram as many ads in and get the highest search ranking... Where's the content?

Where Growth Ends

To understand Google's decisionmaking, we need look no further than their revenue breakdown—the great great majority comes from ads. In fact, almost all ads you see in browsers are Google ads. Google has practically monopolized the advertising space on the Web with their intense monopoly: a monopoly on search, as well as a monopoly on browsers, one they are happy to keep pushing. In TETR.IO's case, a jaw-dropping 95% of players use Chrome, or a Chrome-like browser (e.g. Brave, Opera, Microsoft Edge, etc.). They all run modified versions of Chromium (the open-source base of Chrome, also developed in-house by Google), and thus inherit any changes by Google. For all intents and purposes, they are Chrome reskins. (Not that it matters, as Chrome reskins are still in the minority, making up only about 9% of players.)

So, in terms of occupying the advertising and browser markets, Google has no way to increase their revenues and keep investors happy. The growth of the advertising market on its own isn't something Google can truly influence (and increasing their cut would only harm this). So how else can Google grow?

It's a simple question, but since Google relies on ads, we need to take apart when exactly Google makes money. In specific, Google mainly makes money when it can either show ads directly on its own content (and get a 100% cut), or when it can send you to any page that serves ads through Google's network (and get a smaller cut). The more ads on the result page, the better. The problem is, people don't spend 100% of their waking days on Google properties, or even on the "general Internet" at all. Since this is the only place where Google can increase their revenues.... what can we do about this?

Optimizing "engagement"

Let's get to work then! Let's take an example user. They might be doing something productive (let's say, writing a document), and suddenly they need to look something up. Let's make a chart for that:

Here, the user searches something, looks through the search results page, clicks a result, then finds the answer they were looking for. In this time, Google got to serve 2~4 ads themselves (in the Search page), and the site owner of the result page got to serve another maybe 3~4 ads. That's good, and makes for a good user experience. The user finds what they were looking for in no time, and can go back to being productive.

...

This isn't very lucrative. What if I told you we could turn those simple "3 or so" digits into maybe, 10 times as much? Keep the user searching for 10+ minutes? No reason not to, there's no alternatives anyway! After all, the point of ads is to market in human attention span. Let's redo the chart to something better:

Look at how much more time is being spent on Google and sites with Google ads! Total searches are tripled, link clicks quintupled, and above all, our revenue from this interaction has increased manyfold! Now, the user searches for something, gets to a spammy AI-generated site filled with ads we get a cut from, tries a bunch more, then accidentally clicks to a new search term (allowing us to serve new full-price ads at the top), gets to some more spam, tries another query, and only after a long time of being "engaged" leaves Google!

This might sound dumb and exaggerated, but this is the reality that comes up when Agile and data-driven development becomes the norm. Data-driven development is just a fancy name for ignoring the big picture and hammering down on optimizing specific numbers (KPIs)... and those will always include revenue and meaningless stats like "engagement". It is not a coincidence that the hitbox for the related search terms exactly overlaps the hitbox of the next search result:

Side note on those spam sites: why would Google remove them? It's a question with a simple answer: they wouldn't, as they actively increase Google's revenue.

The Death of Web 2.0

If you think this might be an isolated case, look again. This is all around us on a massive scale. As soon as a company has grown to a size where it cannot gain new users, it instead looks to gain more "engagement" from said users. It's pretty logical when put like that—but when applied to search engines or other productivity tools, it goes against their purpose. This also explains another aspect of why search results are so low-quality: many modern sites don't want to be indexed anymore. How often have you clicked a search result to end on a loginwall? Sites want to protect their own growth by locking you into their platforms, too. They don't want you jumping in, getting the info you need, then leaving.

In essence, we're witnessing the true death of what we used to call Web 2.0 - the web as a publicly available writeable interconnected network of information, where anyone can get the information they need within a few clicks. Instead, the Web has become a set of massive islands, purposefully isolating themselves from all others, and making sure you stay there for as long as possible.

After all, a product is a means to make money. There's no reason to care about the overarching quality of your product when it doesn't increase your KPIs in the short term!


Have you run into similar things like this? I'm wondering about other people's interactions with KPI-focused UI design like this, and foregoing all user experience or even the core of a product for bottom line gains. Let me know your experiences in the comments!

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26 comments sorted by star rate

Tabara Akina

at 2023/11/19 (Sun) 12:00:32 am

as

Uetake Hiroko

at 2023/02/17 (Fri) 4:52:45 am

> 95% of players use Chrome Surprising ratio, would have expected it to be higher. Is TETR.IO Desktop factored into this, or just standard browser results? > The problem is, people don't spend 100% of their waking days on Google properties, or even on the "general Internet" at all. haha... ha.. ha.. oh > The Death of Web 2.0 :( I'm not sure I'm great at spotting KPI-driven development, but I've definitely seen plenty of companies moving towards screwing their users over in the name of profit. I'm usually one to attribute this to greed, on the part of the shareholders or upper management or otherwise, but after reading this I can see growth Growth GROWTH! as being an equally valid (if not outright overlapping) explanation. I like the concept of having sustainable and explainable revenue streams[^1] - imagine a discord-like chat platform where users pay exactly $0.01/gigabyte*month for content they've uploaded to the platform. Maybe toss in a token bandwidth charge too, for both your own consumption and any public viewing of things you've chosen to share. When your users are covering their own usage, you have less of an incentive to grow at all costs. Sadly, this is the internet and nobody wants to pay for things on the internet. On the other hand, part of the problem might be that the web _is_ becoming ever more commercialized. The age of forums wasn't so obsessed with money - some ran ads, but typically just enough to get by covering hosting costs. I've heard about some forums like SA straight up charging for accounts though, and maybe that's why they're still around. osk forum when [^1] TETR.IO as it is now doesn't really have this, nor would I expect it to be a really applicable business model for the game, but ads + supporters is still far preferable to some things I've seen.

osk

at 2023/02/26 (Sun) 11:39:06 pm

> Surprising ratio, would have expected it to be higher. Is TETR.IO Desktop factored into this, or just standard browser results? Yes, this factors in Desktop. The runner-ups are Safari (3%) and Firefox (2%). Sad state for Firefox, but not an unexpected one (...mozilla...) Without Desktop, it becomes 92.8%. (Desktop accounts for about 25.9% of the visits.) > haha... ha.. ha.. oh well, it's true! most people sit mostly in apps (YouTube, Netflix, Discord, TikTok, etc...), as opposed to "the web". > I'm usually one to attribute this to greed, on the part of the shareholders Not wrong. I think wanting to get infinite growth is inherent to people (and that it is especially allowed to be let loose in Agile-like environments), but of course for shareholders it's pretty much inherent to their business. As for upper management... well, their job is to appease to shareholders, so that makes sense there. > osk forum when I actually have a textboard that I never finished... idk. I don't really feel like moderating one, and open-sourcing it just makes me have to maintain it :^)

Yonemura Mio

at 2023/02/26 (Sun) 4:00:36 pm

It seems you've incorporated this into TETR.IO, since the homepage ad always loads at the precise time i'm trying to click, making me click the wrong menu option :P goated blog + goated individual

osk

at 2023/02/26 (Sun) 11:42:03 pm

Well, the point of the blogpost goes a bit deeper, it's more about the mindset. I do have to concess the homepage ad can do that sometimes though... it's an annoying drawback of it being a multi-size ad slot (means you can't predict its size, and it'd be really ugly if a small ad loaded into a massive slot). I've already switched ad provider a bit ago to one that tends to load ads a bit faster, I'm also in the works of moving that ad elsewhere so it doesn't disrupt page flow...

Terata Sachie

at 2023/02/16 (Thu) 10:00:58 pm

I have the feeling that this is going to make it so we reach a kind of "big bounce" when coming to the web and readily available information. With so much trash already among us (and more on the way, because of tools like ChatGPT being abused!) sites will get fully closed and we will be at a point where it will feel like the web prior to indexation, with all search engines being useless, at which point a new "index" will be necessary and it's probable that it starts over again and the cycle just repeats. As for the UI/UX designed to do this... Don't waste my time. I've encountered far too much especially now that I just want a simple recipe with what I have in my pantry already. I will uBlock and 12ft the fuck out of you with no hesitation - PSI

osk

at 2023/02/26 (Sun) 11:27:50 pm

Sadly the modern web isn't well-indexable anymore, with almost all content being hidden into deep web (as in, being loginwalled in some way), and not easily crawled. Any APIs that were made in Web2.0 times are being locked down as we speak... Take for example Twitter, which started off as THE bastion of Web2.0, being made SPECIFICALLY to be super open (the whole point of it was to be accessible even from dumbphones using SMS!), which has now (for a while now) been locked down more and more into being very hard to search (and that's with Twitter having quite GOOD search, compared to the utter joke that is Discord search). Federation and the such will only made this even worse... God, I mentioned Discord, didn't I? Fuck anyone that puts important content (like downloads etc.) on Discord. And fuck Discord for trying to make themselves seem like a proper host of information (forum channels and the like).

Hagiuda Hiroe

at 2023/03/31 (Fri) 12:20:59 pm

yeah, I no longer believe that the web will be as well indexable as it used to be and we'll see the return of geocities-like sites to serve as searchless indexes for useful webpages and information. infact, i'm already seeing that happen.

osk

at 2023/03/31 (Fri) 1:43:32 pm

yea, 's already happening! take the awesome lists for example (https://github.com/topics/awesome)

Harukawa Ayaka

at 2023/02/16 (Thu) 10:06:50 pm

I love you osk

Chiba Miyoshi

at 2023/02/17 (Fri) 12:10:57 pm

I love you Harukawa Ayaka

Nikaido Yuki

at 2023/03/09 (Thu) 11:02:38 pm

I love you Chiba Miyoshi

Mukaiya Emiko

at 2023/03/18 (Sat) 7:42:44 pm

I love you Nikaido Yuki

Shinya Tokuko

at 2023/05/20 (Sat) 2:44:56 am

I love you Mukaiya Emiko

Tsuji Yuki

at 2023/03/12 (Sun) 5:15:03 am

just found this blog and suddenly I realized why search engines today r so hard to use. Thank you osk for explaining this phenomenon clearly :) also can anyone tell me how to practice all clears cuz i dont wanna waste my time on those trash search engines lol

Shinya Tokuko

at 2023/06/25 (Sun) 4:52:03 pm

play more

Taneda Eiko

at 2023/02/16 (Thu) 9:50:43 pm

It's gotten to the point where you have to use control f to find results on a Google results screen

Okumoto Atsuko

at 2023/02/17 (Fri) 4:53:03 am

its so obvious whenever websites are just like. actively trying to waste my time in 2023. and things in general. so much stuff is just doing that and its so annoying. it just feels so betraying as well. im glad stuff that keeps itself as simple as usable still exists. osu and tetrio come to my mind straight away, and then other things like godot and whatnot. i feel so much more respected when its obvious that they arent just trying to gouge me out of my time so i can spend time looking at ads. tbh i kinda relate this to stuff like planned obsolescence and whatnot. yippee capitalism making everything all about maximizing dollars over actual happiness 🥳🥳🥳 (it makes sense then ig why foss stuff is *always* on the cutting edge of not wasting time. since like. there is no reason for money chasing there lol. ) - bebx c: i didnt mean to write so much

Sasage Akane

at 2023/04/17 (Mon) 7:28:08 am

Interesting how right after this article was posted that the next search engine 2.0 chatbot trend has began. Microsoft is actively developing Bing Chat AI and Google also developing Bard to replace the original google.com. This implies that Google has to completely change their advertising model. People wants no bullshit and direct answers to their queries.

Inukai Kumi

at 2023/02/17 (Fri) 7:25:04 pm

i agree

Yoneyama Chiyo

at 2023/05/08 (Mon) 9:59:33 pm

yooo

Saionji Akari

at 2023/02/17 (Fri) 5:56:03 am

i use brave because it uses infinitely less battery than chrome and duckduckgo because it gives me xkcd comics (i made the switch back when i actually consistently looked at xkcd), the "privacy" stuff was more of a side thing. turns out that with duckduckgo just "protected" me from those "people also search for" boxes and the randomized search categories. i remember seeing those boxes when i use/used google search but maybe i just click or react too slow or something dumb like that. so i guess by a bit of luck i managed to avoid this dumb crap.

Morioka Yumiko

at 2023/04/30 (Sun) 5:57:18 am

nice and inspirational article, thx osk

Uozumi Fujie

at 2023/02/20 (Mon) 10:54:15 am

i use an adblocker but i still got those scrolling things on google

osk

at 2023/02/26 (Sun) 11:46:26 pm

I'd say keeping you on their content, even if you're blocking ads, is probably still worthwhile. (Also, hiding that block if you're blocking ads would be pretty "obvious"). I don't think the entire block is entirely _meant_ to be harmful, though. I don't think anyone at Google particularly sat down and thought "let's destroy the user experience". Rather, it's a slow trickle of making decisions based on data and KPIs, to optimize toward them. In fact, the fact this block appears delayed (one of the reasons you accidentally click it) might be a mistake entirely! But the fact it was never fixed means they did not see "responsiveness of the page" or "keeping misclicks down" as KPIs, and rather pursued different ones that instead reinforce the "broken" behaviour.

Kijima Yuuna

at 2024/05/25 (Sat) 7:44:18 pm

well it doesnt get any better with the new ai overviews... i miss when software would just Get out of my way and let me work