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Can You Trick Search Engines to Get the Information You Need?

As you sit at your computer – or laptop, tablet or smart phone – can you trick search engines into sending you the information you want and need?

Social networks are filtering the posts you see in your stream. You’ll first see a Promoted Tweet card or a Boosted Post on Facebook. Most of us know that.

The Filter Bubble 

But what is more worrisome is that search engines are filtering the information you get. Their algorithms build a profile of you based on your past searches. Then they send what they think you should see.

But what if you want to step outside of your own little universe to learn more about a subject or want to understand the different points of view on a topic?

Not much chance of that as Eli Parisier pointed out in this TED talk after the publication of his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. The situation has only gotten worse in the five years since publication of his book as the Internet explodes with information that search engines continually filter for you.

Enter Upworthy

The following year Parisier founded Upworthy, a service that aggregates socially conscious stories from around the web. In an Ideas.ted.com interview, Parisier said about the reaction his book stirred up –

People still thought that everybody sees the same things through Google and everyone sees all of the posts on Facebook and the Facebook news feed. When you can demonstrate how inaccurate that is, it’s really surprising. It’s sort of like being told that your glasses edit out certain people as you’re walking down the street.

In the past month, Upworthy had 21.4 million global views, which is substantial. I get their updates in my Facebook stream and their headlines are always grabbers.

Still, even Upworthy is filtering your results to a narrow sphere of socially conscious stories that often tug at your heartstrings.

How to Trick the Search Engines

Well, there’s always TV and radio news broadcasts. But the current election season is mostly dishing up highly partisan election news. If you only want information you agree with that’s the way to go. Personally, I’ve begun tuning out all that rhetoric.

So here’s my advice:

  • The library. You can still peruse the stacks – assuming your library still has stacks. You can even go online. The New York Public Library Digital Collections is an excellent source of materials. Depending on where you live, your own library could be an excellent resource.
  • A different computer. Try tricking Google by using a computer at the library, or at Staples, Kinko’s and other stores where you can buy some computer time quite cheaply. Of course, after a few visits Google will begin to create new universe for you, so keep moving!
  • Ask a friend. I’ve asked friends to do searches for me. We’ll both sit at our computers and trade information from the same search.
  • Social media. This could be a bit of a crapshoot. Ask a question in a LinkedIn or Facebook Group, or a Google Community.

Maybe you don’t mind that Google filters your search results. After all, how could any of us even begin to digest all the information out there about a particular subject?

But, I’d like to see differing points of view on a topic, and research I didn’t know about.

As the search engines and social media networks become ever more devoted acolytes to advertisers, we will see our universe continue to shrink, and I find that scary.

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  1. I’ve been aware of this for quite a while. While it become more clear how social media networks filter content, fewer people seem aware that search engines do the same thing. We think we live a world where we have access to so much, but in reality, a few powerful people still hold the purse strings.

    • Phoenicia — your point of view is certainly understandable. I just worry that the information tailored to us leaves out some of the content we really need to see.

  2. Interesting stuff. I was not aware of the fact that two people doing exactly the same search query would get different results. I met a Yahoo search engineer a few years ago at a conference and I asked him what direction they were going in with the search engine. He said that they were working on being able to answer your question before you ask it. That might be their perception of what they are doing when they customize your search results. I saw Parisier give a TED talk around the same time as this one, at the Poynter Institute in Florida. What I do find curious is that his site, Upworthy, is often cited, as in Buzzfeed, as using things like listicles and click bait.
    Ken Dowell recently posted..The Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour or how I visited Orlando and escaped the theme parksMy Profile

    • Ken — Yup, it’s true. You get customized results from search engines. No two searches are alike. Upworthy, like any other commercial enterprise, is looking to leverage its site to attract advertisers. So there you have it.

  3. This customization seems to have become more pronounced over the last year. I don’t like seeing items in my social media streams (Facebook, Pinterest for example) “picked for you”. Instead of the Internet opening up the world to us, it is starting to narrow it. Going to the library or another computer is a good idea to see a broader world, but not always the most convenient. I wonder if I could really confuse Google by going through a period of deliberately clicking through on divergent ideas on a diverse number of topics.
    Donna Janke recently posted..Carnaval Preparations in PedasiMy Profile

    • Donna — that’s an interesting idea, to search topics that are totally irrelevant to your usual searches. Worth a try.

  4. At first , my thought is well that is great, everything is being filtered just for me, based on what I want to see and past preferences. But when you start to give it more than just passing consideration, its scary in more ways than one. If we wanted what we see filtered and censored we’d live in North Korea or China. I can’t believe it’s to the point we have to use a different computer to try and trick it into giving us the info. I don’t want people, programs or algorithms determining what is appropriate our useful content for me. Even if that means I have to wade through a few unnecessary site suggestions on the search to get what I want. Secondly, it makes me think of people who live in the same place all their life and never travel outside their immediate area and their worldviews are all shaped by their state and hometown. Oftentimes people lack compassion and understanding for that with which they are not familiar. If a search engine only gives you results based on your past searches, you are limiting yourself from learning about other people, opinions, cultures etc. that you may never have a chance to experience in person.
    Susan cooper recently posted..Raspberry Royale by Saint James Spirits: #Desert #WineMy Profile

    • Susan — I agree it’s scary that we’re seeing the world through Google’s eyes. We might learn more from broadcast news and social networks but our world is now dominated by radical thinkers and outright disinformation. Don’t know the answer.

  5. Jeannette, I’m not sure what all of this means but what I do understand I don’t like. Am I right in thinking that with the power they have and the way they filter, they could manipulate the truth and lead us to believe what they want us to believe? If that’s the case that’s very scary.
    We find the news media filters information to a large extent now and we fail to get the real facts. If there is something I want to know more about I go online and often get a surprisingly different point of view. What happened to reporting the facts as they are, not a biased version?
    lenie recently posted..Are Eco-Friendly Cleaning Supplies Really Safer?My Profile

    • Lenie — Unfortunately, newscasters and social media pundits often don’t find the facts convenient to support their points of view. It’s very worrisome that we can’t learn what we need to know without it being filtered for us.

  6. Great tips, Jeannette. Doing social media research for different clients, my searches are quite interesting. I do use different computers, tablets and sometimes use different browsers to see what results I get. It works pretty well. Thanks for sharing.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted..12 You Can Do This QuotesMy Profile

    • Sabrina — how smart of you to be doing your searches from different devices. Sad that we have to do all that extra work just to get the information we want and need and not what a search engine dishes up for us.

    • William — It seems the search engines are trying to keep one step ahead of us mere mortals so they can dictate the content we see, which is not necessarily what we want.

  7. Yes, all those algorithms that filter information for you everywhere online. Sad but true. If I search on a subject and you have written about it your article will come up because we are associated online, even if there are other articles that are as important, or even more important for that matter.

    Like your idea of searching on different computers best. That way we can get access to information we would otherwise not get hold of.
    Catarina recently posted..What’s your online reputation worth?My Profile

    • Catarina — How true that we’re fed information from friends and colleagues first when we’d like to know what other people are thinking. Same with advertising. I bought a new lamp recently and if I see any more ads for lamps I’ll scream!

  8. Hi Jeannette,

    This is a really interesting piece, thank-you. I discovered this about search engines a while ago. It was right alongside all that out-dated advice about how SEO and keywords would help your content rank that is still out there.

    It’s just one of the reasons why SEO isn’t the best way to get traffic to your blog, especially if you’re a beginner blogger. Not many people are saying this but some are.

    You’re right, it is scary, when you think how your information is being supplied and who’s interests it’s playing along to. I noticed this about my “Home” feed in Twitter. I have 3 accounts on different topics and I noticed that I was getting different topics and people showing up in my feed depending on what account I was viewing it in. For example, my blogging account was showing tweets about blogging, online marketing, content, etc from blogging-related accounts. Whereas my writing/self-publishing account showed tweets related to those topics. The only real way I get to see tweets from outside my “topic” is when people I follow RT them.

    This gives a clue to how this problem can be overcome – by creating networks. Groups of people who you get to know and who can then introduce you to other people. For me, that’s the real “social” angle about social media.
    Tom Southern recently posted..How To Get Traffic When Everything You’ve Tried So Far Has Failed (and You Feel Like Giving Up)My Profile

    • Tom — thanks for stopping by. You’ve nailed it. Social media is all about building relationships where you can exchange information without Big Brother filtering it.

  9. Well, I DO mind the filter and since I invest a lot of time in research mode it makes me crazy. My semi-work around is following news aggregators that specialize in related niches and science and research hubs but it’s still a time-consuming problem when I want to dig into a specific topic. For instance, I’m working on a white paper about willpower and self-discipline and in Google the same handful of research papers keep popping up no matter what term I search under. Grrrr. Living on a small island the library is not a realistic option for me because ours is small the materials ancient. Thanks for the tip on UpworthyJeannette! It looks interesting so I’ve bookmarked it.
    Marquita Herald recently posted..4 Reasons You Could Be Resisting ChangeMy Profile

    • Marquita — I can see where you would be frustrated when Google limits the information it sends you. You might consider going to the library or Kinko and using one of their computers to search because Google won’t have a record of your searches from those computers. Of course, do it often enough and they’ll begin to filter your results again.

  10. Hey Jeannette,

    If I’m not mistaken, if you’re not logged into Google then you can do a search and find what you want. If you’re logged in though then that’s another story. Let me also remind you to clear your cookies, cache, browsing history, everything before doing this too. I clear everything every single night just to keep my computer clean.

    We’re basically screwed though when it comes to social media because you have to be logged into your account to do anything there.

    I’ve known that I’m not seeing everything that I want on the social platforms and I’m not very happy about it. What to do about it though, that’s the big questions and it’s only getting more and more controlled. Guess that’s where everything is leaning though!

    Thanks for sharing this, I’m sure there are some people who aren’t aware of this and would like to at least know.

    ~Adrienne
    Adrienne recently posted..Do You Want To Know Why You Are NOT Making Money From Your Blog?My Profile

    • Adrienne — it’s not only Google that’s filtering your results. Even if you clear your cache and cookies, Google still has a history of your previous searches so I don’t think doing that will help. I could be wrong. The social networks are all filtering the messages you get. It’s supposed to be in your best interests but I’d like to make the decision about what I see. Wishful thinking.

  11. I’ve known for a long time that the search engines, especially Google, learn from your previous activity. I also noticed that recently with the ads that Facebook shows you. I visited a couple of similar websites on a topic and then went to Facebook. The ads were all on that topic. To prevent as much of that undesired filtering as I can I delete my cookies regularly and almost never log into my Google account unless I’m using Google Analytics or something, then log back out and delete the cookies. It’s not perfect because your results may still be filtered by your location, but at least they aren’t filtered by your previous activity.
    Ben recently posted..Earning Additional Income Through Affiliate MarketingMy Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by, Ben. And thanks for the advice about how you get around Google’s filtering your search results. It may be tedious but easier than running out and working from a computer at Kinko’s.

  12. This is a great post, Jeannette. I knew that the searches were promoting sites they “thought” we’d like. But I didn’t realize they were withholding others from our view! It’s amazing that 2 different people would get entirely different results from the same search parameters. I will look at the Unworthy site, as it sounds interesting. Cheers!
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted..Teuchitlan: a trip to authentic MexicoMy Profile

    • Doreen — yes, the search engines give us what they think we should see which is not necessarily what we want to see.