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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 2 Anonymous Web Browsers That Are Completely Private 2 Anonymous Web Browsers That Are Completely Private A good way to protect our information on the web is to surf the web anonymously, like using Google Chrome’s Incognito mode. To go incognito full-time though, you may want to take a look at... 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?

  1. Taz
    July 14, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Here is a really good talk on the subject - http://youtu.be/B8ofWFx525s

    • James Bruce
      July 14, 2011 at 6:49 am

      Thanks Taz! TED rocks

  2. PChammer
    July 13, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    I don't Tweet a lot, have an account there but no Facebook. I fix
    computers for a living and I am more than tired of being rushed because
    people can't get on Facebook. I do prefer privacy. If I sign up for
    something, that's my doing, my choice but I don't like to be tracked or
    shown what search engines feel is what I want to see.

    So after reading your article, how personalized searches are done, I thought about the Filter Bubble and about a search engine I use called "DuckDuckGo". While the name isn't exactly something that stands out as being serious, this search engine is very much that.

    It does not track your browsing habits, very customizable, and the creator truly listens to the people, keeping in contact with them in the forum and other means. It's not one of the "Big Dogs" (yet) but it's definitely growing.

    Perhaps the biggest feature is the search. When you search, you actually get what you are looking for, if people recall the days when Google did that, gave you your search result and not the top bidder link.

    I read your articles here and thought you may be interested in DuckDuckGo, if not for use, then to let users know.

    Here's the link...

    http://duckduckgo.com/

    Great article.

    • James Bruce
      July 14, 2011 at 6:53 am

      Great link mr Hammer, I'm sure everyone appreciates. Have you seen any significant differences yourself, or is it more on principle?

      lol@ "being rushed because people cant get on facebook!"

      • PChammer
        July 14, 2011 at 7:45 am

        There is a slight bit of principle involved, however, it's not at all why I use DDG. If it wasn't a great search engine, privacy or not, I would not use it. I still need to find what I am looking for.

        I don't have anything to hide when I search. Anyone tracking me would have a very boring experience. It's the point of why they do it and the means to which they do it.

        I can actually find what I'm looking for again, using !'s "bangs" and such, it's quite flexible. There are no ads popping up at you or sites that take you to the deep jungles of Africa seeing someone stuck in a muddy jeep when you typed in "hard drive".

        It's definitely about getting back to what search engines were and the privacy is a bonus.

        <>

        Yes, I find it more annoying than 2011 Antivirus. I've had people tell me to leave the virus on and they take the PC home, thinking it a 15 min fix and getting upset when I say "No, quite longer", then they leave with it that way because they need Facebook.

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