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google search personalizedOne of the biggest attractions of the Internet is that we basically have instant access to all of the information in the world – but we rely rather heavily on search engines to bring that content to us. A worrying trend is emerging in both Google search results and your Facebook friend feed in that what you see is increasingly personalised to your preferences.

To some, this sounds like just another advance in search technologies, while to others it represents a disgusting step into morally shaky grounds.

Google

If you’re logged into Google, it is now impossible not to have some form of personalisation happening on your search results. Even Eric Schmidt himself readily admits this:

It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not been tailored for them.

Google uses a number of key factors, including but not limited to:

If you’re worried about your results, one quick test is to open up an incognito 4 Uses for Browsing in Privacy Mode (That Isn't Porn) 4 Uses for Browsing in Privacy Mode (That Isn't Porn) Read More page in your browser (or some other form of do-not-track browser session 4 Anonymous Web Browsers That Are Completely Private 4 Anonymous Web Browsers That Are Completely Private A good way to protect your information on the web is to surf anonymously. Google Chrome’s Incognito mode can help to an extent, but you should also look at the following web browsers. Read More ) and do the same search. In one you’ll be signed in, the other not (which means you’ll get “pure” results).

Here’s an example, when I searched for iPad Board Games.

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google search personalized

Logged In Results

1. ipadboardgames.org (my own site)
2. boardgamegeek.com/~
3. makeuseof.com/tag/11-free-ipad-board-games/ 11 Free iPad Board Games You Shouldn't Miss 11 Free iPad Board Games You Shouldn't Miss Read More (“recommended by Jorge, from FriendFeed”)
4. geek-news.mtv.com
5. appannie.com (Top iPad Board Games)
6. gigaom.com (10 Board Games for the iPad)
7. redmondpie.com
8. iphoneness.com
9. purplepawn.com

Result number 10 was blocked by my own personal blacklist, as it was a spam site with a single game review, able to rank well because of the exact domain match only.

I also see +1 buttons when logged in, and have indeed +1’ned my own site in the hopes it will rank better because of it (not that I can rank any better than number 1 anyway, but it may help with long tail search queries).

Incognito Mode

When browsing privately, the makeuseof.com article has been demoted from 3 to 5 – its natural position with no social input, and result 10 is now shown because my personal block is inactive. However, it’s important to bear in mind I don’t have a Twitter account linked and I’m relatively inactive on any social networks. In fact, I didn’t even know I had a FriendFeed account, but evidently I do. With lots of social contacts and active accounts, you should be able to see how drastically different your results might be.

Facebook

Last year Facebook also started to display customised timelines, filtering out certain users, or what it considers “boring” status updates. To see the difference, log into your Facebook feed and click between the Top News and Most Recent feed. Most Recent will show you everything.

personalized search

In my own experiments, I certainly can’t figure out the logic behind the filters. On the one hand, it’s placing status updates from people I consider to be my closest friends onto Most Recent, but not Top News, even if they’ve received a lot of comments and are clearly popular updates. Then it places people I really couldn’t care about on Top News, and randomly hides comment threads making me think no one has said anything. What gives Facebook?

How To Turn Off The Personalized Facebook Feed

To turn off the ridiculous Facebook filter while still maintaining your own personal blacklist (everyone has one or two idiot friends who only play FarmVille), head to the bottom of your feed and click the EDIT OPTIONS link. In the pop-up, change the option to read Show Posts From: All of Your Friends and Pages. Anything you’ve specifically blocked will stay blocked, but you won’t have random posts hidden because Facebook deems them unpopular.

google search personalized

Conclusion:

As for Facebook – I can’t figure what they’re playing at – but their feed personalisation seems particularly ineffective and senseless, so best to just turn it off. What do you think?

If you’re an active social user and tweet a lot, it’s quite likely your Google search results could be drastically different, so I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you’ve done some tests. Personally, I’m not of the opinion that personalised search results are a bad thing per se, but I can see how some might consider it to be. As an atheist, what if my search results suddenly started to cut out fundamentalist religious sites? Would that bother me? Or might I be inclined to deliberately block them anyway in the hopes that Google search results would be adjusted globally to exclude them and further my own cause (and is that in itself morally wrong)?

Is giving users a degree of control over what appears higher in search results something that should be applied only to individuals results, or to the global results, or do you think user signals should be ignored completely?

These are all questions that some of us are going to have to address in the coming years as more and more external signals are used to adjust our search-scape of the Internet universe. Or are you one of those that will just skip Google completely, and crowd-source your search needs to your epic Twitter followers?

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