What It’s Like To Stop Using Google Search

Most of the time I don’t notice a single difference

Clive Thompson
Debugger
Published in
9 min readFeb 28, 2022

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For almost twenty years, I used Google as my main search engine.

When it first appeared in 1997, Google was wildly better than the competition. You young’uns don’t remember this — shakes cane — but back in the ‘90s, search engines were a hot mess. You’d type your query into AltaVista or Lycos or HotBot, and behold! — a jumbled list of marginally relevant junk. Infoseek was slightly better because you could do a search, then do another search inside those results, and so on and so on (a cool technique that I wish someone would reboot today, tbh). But mostly you just waded through a swamp of irrelevant search results. You’d type in “best pizza in Toronto” and get, like, three web sites devoted to rollerblades, the CIA World Factbook entry for Albania, and a GeoCities page devoted to the German fansubbed rip of Battle of the Planets. They called it “surfing” the web because honestly, you might drown.

Then Google arrived, and the seas parted. It had a brilliant social insight powering its “PageRank” ranking algorithm (i.e. that a page with lots of links pointing to it was more noteworthy than a mere keyword match). Google did a bigger, huger “crawl” of the web than any other search engine, so they had the most complete results. If you searched for something on Google, you mostly likely found it. No need to go elsewhere.

Google’s original logo, designed by Sergey Brin using GIMP

And it stayed that way for years, well into the 2010s. Google was my default, and society’s default. Google blasted their competition out of low Earth orbit and littered their charred remains across the landscape. Soon they’d become the metonymic stand-in for the act of searching itself: “Did you google it?”

But things changed.

In the last decade or so, Google’s search results began to grow mold. They started running more and more ad-results at the top of the search results. They began to minimize how obvious the ads were, to confuse people into clicking on them. These days, if I search for a product, the top of the results are chock-a-block with products. Even…

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Clive Thompson
Debugger

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net