There are some who will tell you that Ask Jeeves was right from the start. I’m less sure that’s true. In fact, I’m starting to think that Google’s fascination with adding slow and unreliable AI chat to its results is a way for a tech contemplating a startup to go full throttle and immediately run past Google.
Ask Jeeves was launched in 1997. The idea was that you type a natural language query into the field and the valet comes back with an answer. (Jeeves is named after the famous character of PG Wodehouse, a nearly omniscient man with a “feudal mind”. Disclosure: My cat is also named after this character.) It was popular until Google search came along – a Search Engine with Better Skills Its other strengths include crawling the web.
This comes after a period of apparent Google search deterioration, due in part to the success of Google itself
One of the ways that early Google search differed from Ask Jeeves was that it was easier to use for anyone who knew anything about Boolean search. Boolean operators (“and,” “or,” and “not”) are powerful tools for narrowing search results and getting the results you want. Ask Jeeves has guessed a Boolean search for its users if they entered natural language terms — as Google is now doing — but guessing a Boolean term for a user is much less meaningful than having a user simply type in Boolean search terms themselves . For power users, Google was obviously superior.
And now, for reasons best known to itself, Google has chosen to hamper its search process: by adding a box at the top with AI-powered “natural language” (lol, lmao) answers. This comes after a period of apparent Google search degradation, due in part to the success of Google itself: Entire search engine optimization teams have been put together to make sure websites show up on the first page of search, since most people never get to the second page click. And there’s an increase in SEO bait junk popping up first.
SEO baits aren’t really new. If you look at the HTML of the Heaven’s Gate website, which is basically a time capsule from 1997, you’ll see a series of words at the end, rendered in the same color as the website background. These words are search terms and reflect SEO at the time: “extraterrestrial” is repeated 14 times, for example, to give it priority in crawlers. But trying to find that site now highlights the problem of Google search – because they prioritize freshness, and because search engine optimization has changed since then, the original cult site isn’t in the top 10 results, or even in the top 50 for Heaven’s Gate. ”
I’m not the first to notice that Google search has gotten significantly worse over the years. Part of the problem, of course, is that the web is bigger than it used to be. Some of these are new SEO tactics. Part of this is the increasing amount of large language models – Google has really shit in its own nest with this. Some of this is inexplicable: What deal with the devil did Pinterest make to rank its largely useless results so high?
“I was looking for some products in Bard and they offered me a place to buy them, a URL, but it doesn’t exist at all.”
However, the switch to an AI chatbot-like search response tells me that Google doesn’t understand why it’s outperforming Ask Jeeves. It was a better experience for power users. Most of us don’t want a dubiously accurate, summarized answer from unknown websites – we want to be able to judge the source of our answer from the original copy. Downranking links – websites that may have been created by real people – means removing them. And crucially, AI has slowed down Google’s responses. Are you patient enough to wait for a possibly wrong answer from God knows where? I’m not.
I mean, even Sundar Pichai noticed the problem: “I was looking for some products in Bard and they offered me a place to buy them, a URL, and it doesn’t exist at all,” he told the boss on decoders . Cool product bro!
For the first time in my life, I think Google search is vulnerable. Take Bluesky, which is almost exactly like Twitter for one user, except it’s not full of crypto spam, gore videos, and Elon Musk. One way to beat Google: a startup that looks and feels like the old Google search, but delivers better results, perhaps by choosing different dimensions for indexing. Maybe someone smart can use the AI under the hood to filter out the junk.
But maybe figuring out how to crawl the web in its decrepit, AI-crowded, and SEO-bombed state is too technically difficult. There’s a view, especially from people who oversell their investments, that AI will devalue human labor. But what if the rise of AI-written nonsense made humans more valuable? If you want a human result and not machine-generated SEO decoy, you might want a human involved in the search process. You could move on to hiring a curator.
In fact, it’s another early Internet search model that could be revived: Yahoo! Directory, launched in 1994. Back then, it was one of the most useful ways to get around the web: a human-indexed directory for users to search. It was crushed by the supremacy of Google search and shut down in 2014. There’s even a signal here that’s valuable: the popularity of adding the search term “Reddit.” I don’t know how long this will work in the LLM era, but it suggests that a number of users genuinely want results from others.
I don’t know what the actual solution is. All I know is that I smell weakness, and if you’ve ever been the kind of person who longed to take down a giant with just a slingshot, then this is your moment. Because the main problem with converting Google search to Ask Jeeves is that we already know what happened to Ask Jeeves.