Is Google Giving You the Search Results You Need?

Google filtering search results

Here I am on page one

Something insidious is happening when you search Google, or turn to Yahoo News for information, or your Facebook page for updates.

You’re not getting the results you want or need. You’re getting the results that these services think you want. Even though I happen to do quite a bit of search around the terms green building and sustainability for a client, I’m hardly a sustainability expert.

But the other day, when I searched Google for “sustainability” I showed up on page one of the SERPs. Not any of the leading sustainability consulting firms nor the numerous global companies that are committed to sustainability and earning the coveted LEED standard of building performance. So what’s going on?

The Bubble Filter

This phenomenon was dubbed the “bubble filter” by Eli Pariser who discusses it in this TED video and in his book The Bubble Filter – How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think.”

As he says in this TED talk, the sites you search are “…doing this kind of invisible, algorithmic editing of the Web. If I search for something, and you search for something, even right now at the very same time, we may get very different search results. Even if you’re logged out, one engineer told me, there are 57 signals that Google looks at — everything from what kind of computer you’re on to what kind of browser you’re using to where you’re located — that it uses to personally tailor your query results.

“Think about it for a second: there is no standard Google anymore. And you know, the funny thing about this is that it’s hard to see. You can’t see how different your search results are from anyone else’s.”

Do You Want Personalized Results?

If you already know a lot about a subject but are looking for different points of view, say on green buildings, you don’t want to see your own content, or content you’ve retweeted or reposted on a social network, to get fed back to you. At least I don’t. I want to see what I don’t know, not what’s been personalized for me based on algorithms that are unfathomable to most of us.

Just as an example, I asked a friend to do a search for “cures for kidney disease.” She’s had a kidney transplant so I suspected our results would differ. They did. On our first pages there was only one duplicate result.

Google, Facebook and other social networks place advertising next to your search results based on what it thinks your interests are and what they think you might buy. So it’s likely this trend of personalization will accelerate.

I’ve been lulled into believing that with the Internet I have the world of information at my fingertips. But it turns out it’s a world created for me by search engines.

How do you feel about this trend? Are you getting the search results you want or what the search engines decide to send you?

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Comments

  1. This trend is alarming for many reasons, and once again, I will look at the issue from an educator’s standpoint. It’s a difficult task to teach students how to discern what sources of information are authoritative, and when search results are skewed because Google is giving results based on my prior search history and/or location, it just throws another rock onto an already impossible pile of information to deal with. A world that is created for the user by search engines has such scary implications. George Orwell must be rolling over in his grave.

    • Jeri — it is scary because you don’t know what information you’re missing. I guess we’ll need to start forming teams and do searches for each other where Google hasn’t already tracked our every move on a subject.

  2. Since I am not tech savvy – this may be a dark-ages question – but does this mean that when you search the sites that come up are no longer the sites that are the most viewed or have the most traffic on the subject?

    • I’m not an SEO expert, but I don’t believe that your search results are based on Google sending you the most viewed sites. The results are based on the relevancy of your search terms. Just changing one word in the phrase you’re searching will give you different results and a previous result that was at the top of your list could drop further down in the results. It’s really up to you to look at the results for the information that is most relevant to you at that time.

  3. I have had the same experience. I do a lot of research on different wines. When I start my search I get this stuff that is not at all what I am interested in or looking for. As a result, it takes me much longer to get to the pertinent information I need.

    On another level I find it very disturbing that they feel they can discern my interests at any given time by watching over my shoulder (so to speak)… it gives me the willy’s thinking about it. Just my thoughts. 🙂

    • Susan — I know. It does seem like Big Brother is looking over our shoulder. I guess we just need to adjust the phrases we are searching and hope for the best.

  4. I’m a little confused by your post. The default is personalized search, but you can also turn that off by clicking on the little earth on the right that says “hide personal results.” When you do that, you should get results not based on your contacts. But you are so right that this is confusing.

    It seems that Google has you mixed up with a Paladino company in Seattle. Machines are not humans, and even humans are hardly perfect.

    • Leora — LinkedIn doesn’t have me confused with the company in Seattle which is owned by my nephews. The point is that I came up instead of the firm, which is the expert in sustainability. Even turning off my personal results shouldn’t have precluded their coming up in my search.

  5. Thanks for this post, Jeannette. At least I now know that it’s not all me. I do get the feeling that the search engines are ruling the information world. Researching a project has become a bigger task than it used to be (my opinion), and now I understand why.

    • Dolores — I’m glad that I clarified that it’s not you — it’s Google spoon feeding you what they think you want.

  6. I have as a preference in the settings not to include search history. I am not sure if this helps stopping them showing what they think I want. The problem the personalised results is the lack of objective results. There have been a number of posts about user intent but I don’t think algorithms can ever get it totally accurate.

  7. Hi Jeannette: Very interesting post.

    Yes, it’s disheartening to know that info is being “filtered” to give us what the algorithms THINK I want and need to know, vs giving me the opportunity to decide for myself.

  8. Agree with you that a Google search is no longer objective. But since personalized results is the name of the game, the positive aspect is that the more connected you are on social media the more you will show up on SERPs.

    You are right that the bubble filter is not perfect. But that’s the way it is, at least for the moment, so apart from what Susan and Leora suggsts, there isn’t much we can do about it.:-)

    • Catarina — yes, you’ve got to be active on social media if you want to get found. When I first started blogging my search results showed stories about me that were ancient history. As the months and years passed, those references all disappeared and my SERPs are all current.

  9. Kelly — I know that I automatically turn to Google, although lately I’ve been experimenting with — Yahoo!! Remember when it was all Yahoo for search? I don’t know that Bing will ever dominate search but I’ve also heard good things about that search engine.