The Future of Search Results is more of the Same Problems

The importance of search engines.  We use them to find goods and services, we use them for research, as I am while putting this post together.

At a minimum, as a matter of commerce it is obvious that search results have a lot of power. Consider this from research done by Public Relations firm Fleishman-Hillard:

Internet search engines continue to be the most prominent tool consumers rely upon to help make purchase decisions (89 percent), indicating the ongoing importance of a strong search engine optimization strategy.

Also consider this from an article at Search Engine Watch:

New findings from online ad network Chitika confirm it’s anything but lonely at the top. According to the study, the top listing in Google’s organic search results receives 33 percent of the traffic, compared to 18 percent for the second position, and the traffic only degrades from there….

Now consider this from an article on Search Engine Journal:

While hardly a new product, Google Now is paving the way for their deep search experience by delivering information based on your life, not keywords. For example, as I leave my house Google may recommend I take an umbrella if it looks like rain, or an alternate travel route if there is a traffic jam up ahead.

Now consider how this data might be used to enhance a common search such as one for “new car.” Today, a normal search for this term might return several paid listings and 10 organic listings that cover car reviews, videos, manufacturer websites, and local car dealers.

But if you were to layer-on a level of deep personalization, that same search might factor in the following: how far you drive to work, how many kids you have, what cars your friends drive, what car photos you’ve looked at online, current dealer incentives, local dealer inventory, price range based on recent spending habits, best insurance rates, and even your favorite color.

The end result? That search would return an info card with a single car perfectly tailored to who Google thinks you are based on their in-depth user profile.

This is, of course, an expansion of search result bias in the form of personalization, and personalization of search results cuts us off from differing ideas and perspectives, as we discussed in an earlier post.  Far more comprehensive than that humble post is The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think, a book written by Eli Pariser.  If you are interested in this topic you should read it.

I shouldn’t pick on just Google though.  Bing has been guilty of the same thing, albeit at a much less comprehensive way.  Did you know that during the 2012 election Bing made it possible to revise the content of its election page based on your political views?  You could slide a bar from right to left (or left to right if that’s your thing) and the perspective of the news would change as you did it.

There.  I’m not biased.  I’m working on a search engine though.  It will analyze your prejudices and return only those search results that directly conflict with them.

A couple more points to consider.  First, I cut this paragraph from the above quote from Search Engine Journal:

To make these recommendations Google must have access to your email, calendar, location and travel history. For most companies, this would be an impossible task, but with Google’s vast array of products they can easily get this information and much more.

So once again the price for participation is the exposure of personal information.

Finally, isn’t the disclosure of information by Google and others one of things that has people worked up about the NSA?  As noted in an earlier post, Google can’t disclose what you don’t give them.

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