Home Can Google’s Custom Search Create an Idea Echo Chamber?

Can Google’s Custom Search Create an Idea Echo Chamber?

It’s great to have everything customized to suit just you, right? You like your bed a certain stiffness, your oatmeal a certain thick and your coffee a certain sweet. How about your search results? According to an article by The Register, Google is working to “‘personalize’ as much as 20 percent of your web searches”.

While this might be good for some things, we’re thinking it could also be like formulating an answer before someone even finishes asking the question.

The Register quotes Google software engineer Bryan Horling, who spoke this afternoon at the Search Marketing Expo, as saying that one in five searches are customized using a user’s location, web history or online contacts. “Between these three techniques,” Horling said, “just about every user who’s engaging with Google search today is affected.”

Horling explains that many of the changes, however, are rather subtle and usually involve rearranging a few results on a page and not providing an entirely different set of results. Google has tailored results on a large scale, such as by country, for years, Horling explains, but is now “applying it at a finer granularity.”

While people we are in contact with are often of the same mindset and our location comprises much of our interaction with the world, do we really want Google to assume this for us? If we are researching a topic that is normally completely out of our realm, do we really want the search engine to pull us back in, however subtly? Take Google’s “social search” for example.

“The idea behind social search is that we surface content from your social circle,” he said. If you know a particular person, for instance, Google may ensure that a document they wrote receives particular prominence on the results page.

Customizing search results, it would seem, can be like putting us in an echo chamber of similar ideas and opinions. If we look up technology related topics in Google, suddenly we are fed links from our tech savvy contacts that Google pulls from our Buzz stream. But what if we are looking for the outside perspective? Even if we aren’t intentionally looking for the outside perspective, we’re suddenly being subtly driven back to our own world view, as repeated by our peers.

While some examples, like searching for a bus schedule or searching for the words “coffee shop” seem self evident, we have to wonder how these one in five results are changing the way we search the Web.

And if nothing else, we’d rather be able to opt-out if we need, without having to sign out, delete our cookies, clear our cache and reboot the system.

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