Personalised Results are Like Chicken NuggetsWhen you search Google, it is likely you will get different results than the ones I get. Google is personalising the search results based on each of our behaviour.

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

I think personalising the search results is like feeding a child a strict diet of chicken nuggets because that is what the kid thinks he wants.

Personalising the results will actually narrow the universe of our information discovery.  It gives us the results that Google hopes we’re comfortable  and familiar with, but as a result it will make the results parochial.  Words like narrow-minded, and insular, and irrelevant spring to mind.

What does  “personalisation” mean in practical terms?

First, the degree of personalisation depends on whether you are logged into you Google account or not.  Even if you are not logged in, the results are still being personalised.

Second, you need to consider the types of activity that influences the personalisation:

  • Your behaviour, for example sites that you visit a lot, such as your own website, will rank more highly in your own personal search results
  • Your search history over the last 180 days, taking into consideration the phrases you searched for and the sites you clicked on previously
  • Information that Google knows about you, such as content that is contained within your other Google products and services like Gmail,  posts that have been shared on Google+ or images that you have shared

In brief, personalisation is Google trying to improve our search experience by providing the most useful, relevant content for your search.


Why might personalised results be a bad idea?

There is certainly a “gut reaction” to the concept of personalised results.  63% of Mashable readers would prefer to go back to the old fashioned non-personalised results, and 45% of US Internet users feeling that everyone should see the same results when searching for the same keyword.  (source: AYTM Market Research, 12 January 2012)



Google personalized search results

Secondly, there are the privacy issues surrounding the nature and volume of data that Google knows about you, and how it is exploiting that not only to improve your search experience, but also to leverage the revenue Google generates from its advertising network and other services.

But what is really bad about personalised results….

Most importantly there are quality issues with the search results being skewed to show garbage results that are influenced by people I’m connected with and the way that I behave.

Quite simply, I now need to prune out the idiots I’m connected with in Google+ so that I don’t get their shared junk polluting my search results.

And most people are not aware that the results they are seeing don’t reflect the reality of what most other people are seeing.  Already I am having to explain to people their own website ranks highly when they search Google, but this is the exception rather than the rule.  It is all a bit Alice in Wonderland.

Going back to my days as a librarian (did you know I worked in  library?  didn’t think so…) I think Google has ethical responsibility to provide the best possible results from the universe of best results.  The whole point of Google is quality information discovery. Instead Google risks letting the lunatics run the asylum.

Personalising the search results is a bit like Alice’s alternative world through the looking glass:  a reflected view of our world based on a strange and chaotic logic

Next week:  what does Google know about you?


3 responses to “What is wrong with Google personalised results”

  1. Dorte says:

    That does sound rubbish :o(
    So from a business point of view, there is no longer a way of actually knowing how you will rank in a users search results as they could always vary slightly?
    And from a personal point of view, I want to see the real "big picture" not the limited view Google thinks I want to see…
    Any chance they will go back on this do you think?

  2. Susan Hallam Susan Hallam says:

    Hi Dorte

    Google has been personalising the results for a long time now, so what is changing is the extent to which the results are tailored to you.

    There are ways to “depersonalise” the results:
    If you use Firefox then you can use the Private Browsing function, or the Chrome “Incognito” option.

    Also, always be sure to log out of your Google account.

    And finally, you can edit what Google knows about you – I’ll be writing about that tomorrow, so watch this space!

  3. S says:

    Hi Susan,
    Great post. I have a question I would like to ask you. Since so many people use Google, it has tons and tons of personal data. How would Google use (or misuse?) this data, apart from recommendations and ads? Thanks.

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