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Who is Prabhakar Raghavan and why is he accused of killing Google Search?

It’s not your imagination: Google Search has gotten progressively worse over the years and at least one study confirms it. But until now most of us believed this was due to some corporate strategy hatched in a room full of executives. Not so, writes Edward Zitron, pointing the finger at Prabhakar Raghavan, current senior VP at Google, responsible for Search, Assistant, Ads, and a few other divisions. Formerly, in charge of Yahoo Search in the 2000s. Ouch.

A study earlier this year by German academics verified what many users of Google search had long suspected: the search engine, once the gold standard for such activities, had been getting worse. The reason, the researchers concluded, is that too much low-quality content was being optimized to appear higher in search results than information of higher caliber. This was due to popular online marketing strategies such as affiliate marketing, which incentivizes the mass production of such content to maximize clicks.

The study, which came from Leipzig University, Bauhaus-University Weimar, and the Center for Scalable Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, also analyzed results from the Bing and DuckDuckGo search engines, noting that Google performed better than its counterparts in several key areas.

Given its outsized presence in the search engine space, though, the findings about Google were significant.

What the study did not do was identify a particular culprit responsible for Google Search’s decline. More recently, Edward Zitron in his newsletter article, titled “The Man Who Killed Google Search” took care of that in no uncertain terms. He identified that man as Prabhakar Raghavan, the senior vice president responsible for Search, Assistant, Geo, Ads, Commerce, and Payments products. Zitron, though, describes him as “a computer scientist class traitor who sided with the management consultancy sect.”

Zitron starts his story in 2019 when Google’s ads team raised an alarm about the declining search revenue growth. In emails that were eventually released as part of the Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Google, Jerry Dischler, then the VP and General Manager of Ads at Google, noted that search query growth was “significantly behind forecast,” the “timing” of revenue launches was significantly behind, and he expressed a vague worry that “several advertiser-specific and sector weaknesses” existed in search.

What followed next was a corporate battle between the ads team, led by Raghavan, and the search team led by Ben Gomes, whom Zitron calls a hero, albeit one that was ultimately defeated.

The ads team was not interested in maintaining search quality and pushed to prioritize growth metrics. Gomes argued on behalf of the user experience and charged that “growth is all that Google was thinking about.”

Raghavan won the philosophical argument and a little over a year later became the head of Search. After nearly 20 years of building Google Search, Gomes would be relegated to SVP of Education at Google, Zitron wrote. “Gomes, who was a critical part of the original team that made Google Search work, who has been credited with establishing the culture of the world’s largest and most important search engine, was chased out by growth-hungry managerial types led by Prabhakar Raghavan, a management consultant wearing an engineer costume.”

The Justice Department emails provide even more detail about this narrative arc, and Zitron urges readers to look them up. They “tell a dramatic story about how Google’s finance and advertising teams, led by Raghavan with the blessing of CEO Sundar Pichai, actively worked to make Google worse to make the company more money.”

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