Skip to content

Google Gets Personal and Trusts You

Google, the Greatest Search Engine of All Time, has ramped up it’s exploitation of insider knowledge, and increased it’s personalization of the Google results. If you have a Google account, you will see a set of search results that has probably been “adjusted” just for YOU. Not everyone likes this idea.

A combination of actions taken by the Big G over the past year or so presume to increase Google’s knowledge of YOU, and modify the search engines results pages (SERPs) that Google gives YOU when it thinks it is YOU typing at the keyboard. This is of serious interest to people who make a living influencing how Google sets up its SERPs, and so if you want to read more detail you can read about it here and here. It’s presented a small enhancement by Google here. But that’s only a small part of the story.

As a search person (working in search engine optimization – SEO –  for competitive purposes), I have long proclaimed a perspective I gained from the hacking community and my engineering training. Basically, where there is trust, there is an exploit. If you need to find a system weakness (either because you are designing a system to work well, seeking to understand how a system might fail, or looking to exploit weaknesses in a system), you simply examine how and where assumptions are made. Where does that system place trust? If you are an advanced person working in this area, you also seek to know WHY that trust has been granted (because that reveals the operating weakness in the system…the weakness that itself has been “trusted”, if you will).

Google has decided to trust it’s a-priori knowledge of YOU, in order to personalize YOUR search results. It has decided that it can use past knowledge about YOU to predict YOUR intent at the time of a search. The Google engineering team also has some plan in place for Google to LEARN as it goes, so as to improve it’s GUESS about YOU over time.  They describe it like this:

Keep in mind that personalization is subtle; at first you may not notice any difference. But over time, as the search engine learns your preferences, you’ll see it. For example, I (Sep) am an avid Miami Dolphins fan (no joke). Searching for [dolphins] gives me info about my favorite football team, while a marine biologist colleague gets more information about her salt-water friends.

I think this is a fatal error for Google the search engine.

I know that what Google thinks is true about me, is largely untrue. I don’t need to explain why I believe that, because I also believe Google will never reveal what it thinks it knows about users (and uses to personalize their SERPs). There can be no debate on accuracy without some transparency of data. The mismatch of “personalization” will cause the Google SERPs to become one the one hand homogenized (I always get a sanitized SERP, which is a form of censorship) and on the other hand wildly un-useful (I searched to learn something new, not recall something from memory). Homogenized SERPs are boring and disappointing. I don’t want a search engine to be a directory… I want it to be a tool for exploration of “what’s out there”. Most importantly, I want to GROW with every query. I want to LEARN from what I see. I want to get VALUE out of my use of Google.

You can argue that as a professional my situation is an outlier; that I am not a typical user. I suggest that I am a typical search engine user. But these days not all Google users are search engine users. A large percentage of the audience of Googlers these days are not actually searchers but Internet users. Many have come to the search engine via hijack… they entered their URL into the wrong box. Google corrupted the Mozilla Foundation and got a Google search box placed front and center on the start page of the Firefox browser… and many, many people use it as a location bar, not aware it is actually search box. Or they Google because it is interesting and effective (not just effective). They get rewarded when they use Google, because they gain a bit more awareness along the way to the answer (any advanced SEO can tell you about dominating a SERP and using the ancillary positions to influence the overall user awareness of the topic searched).  Is it any surprise that research shows Googlers only click on page one results? A large number were not searching, but given a search results page will click through to what they actually wanted and Google takes credit for the referral. Worse, Google also records it as an indicator of intent and desire for that user, saving that “knowledge” for use later in “personalized results”.

The same has been done by Yahoo! with Flock and just about every toolbar distributor. It is also enhanced by the new IE and Firefox, because those browsers now send all malformed URLs over to a search engine. Even a slightly malformed URL in IE7 results in a search: the other day I entered in the IE7 location bar and got a Yahoo! search results page for (because I had not included the “www”?) Of course the first entry in the SERP was They have hijacked a whole helluvalot of users, passed then through search engines, proclaimed a vast increase in the amount of people who “get to a site through search engines”. That has given them economic power (via purported influence). Now they have a problem… they can’t actually have a search engine if so many of their users are not actually searching buy simply going somewhere. A search engine gets in the way. So what’s it going to be? Google the search engine, or Google the directory? Or maybe Google the portal?

Personalized SERPs won’t work for the long haul. They won’t support the core search engine user base, and they won’t support the “we are the best search engine” business model. If nothing else, Google’s move to personalized SERPs will open an opportunity for the next true search engine to emerge and serve the market of actual “searchers”. Were Google to achieve a broad enough adoption of personalization (it requires a Google account), I think Google would become a portal (instead of a search engine) like AOL or Yahoo or the old MSN.

And let’s not forget that search isn’t a profitable business. Google monetized the search experience via advertising only because it moved in with something new and a huge near monopoly on “searcher” traffic (largely understood to be Internet traffic). Increased personalization means increased portalization, and Google is really monetizing a portal and not a search engine. Take away advertising on “search” related properties (referring to AdSense partners as search partners because so many survive on search referred traffic) and Google doesn’t have profits, either.

Cloudy picture? For sure. Google has too much influence right now, and for now Google can do whatever the hell it wants. The only thing that suffers is the user.

And that brings me to my conclusion. Sadly, the audience is largely unaware of how the media influences their access to information, and thus their beliefs, but they suspect it is possible. When Google censors the SERPs via “personalization”, it does so without obligation because it has found a way to simply let the user’s own actions determine (algorithmic-ly?) that censorship step. Not getting the whole picture? well, it’s because you didn’t turn off personalization, and something you did in the past must have caused the algorithm to show you these search results instead. Get that word out and pretty soon anyone capable of turning off cookies  will turn off their Google accounts much of the time. A headline or two about how “what you see may not be what your neighbor sees” will cause many of your neighbors to second guess their Googling. And remember the thing about trust? Google is trusting that what it sees you do when logged in to your Google account, defines who you are and can be used to censor what you see in your “personalized” SERPs. I know that will never work.
Let’s assume this program advances. Google and Yahoo! have betrayed users by hijacking the browser location bar, encouraging toolbar installations, and now presenting censorship as a form of enhancement. Advanced users already know this. Intermediate users will increasingly dis-trust Google, preventing such personalization efforts from increasing quality enough to be noticed. Casual users (yesterday’s AOL user) will love Google as it shows them what they wanted to see. I leave the rest as an exercise for the reader: How will Google be as the new AOL, and what happens in Internet world when someone tries to lock up the users inside a closed system?