Googled: what personalised search could mean for the world

Posted on 19/04/2011


Google Monster

Over 100 million people have a Gmail account*. A while back I noticed something strange.

A colleague and I were searching for tips on SEO techniques on two separate machines, both logged into different Google accounts. We were expecting to enter the same search terms and find identical results. Afterall, we were both in the same country searching in the same language.

However, we found something different.

Using your Gmail search history, more personalised searches are produced. I’ve yet to understand how the search algorithm works, but what this shows that it’s personalised each time, depending on what you’re looked at before. It even looks at what you’ve clicked on before, updating your search results with the link you chose.

The site I’d visited before and other similar websites were on the first page of results. My colleague had a completely different set of results, even though he’d searched using the same terms.

Here are a couple of tests I’ve done since then. There are some differences depending on whether I’m logged in or not but they don’t quite replicate the huge differences I saw the first time:

Google test using "High Wycombe" as my search term

Logged in

Google test using "High Wycombe" as my search term

Not logged in.

The Eden Centre website, which I’ve visited before appears top, while Wikipedia is the first link when I’m not logged in. The terms and conditions of the free account allow Google to anonymously use our data to “improve their service”, and this begins to illustrate how they’re using this to improve search results. So what could more personalised searches mean for us?

For one thing it would water down some of the search optimization work companies do on their websites. Anyone paying for annual search engine optimization or trying to use the latest trending words still wouldn’t appear top in Google searches 100% of the time. For these companies, it’s a fail.

For everyone else it’s a win. You’re more likely to find what you’re after and not what someone else wants you to find. If search engines are reduced to marketing tools then only SEO companies benefit. As an internet user, i want useful search results, not self promotion.

With 65.7 percent of “explicit” searches done through Google, these developments also change how the internet works. Now that Google search listings are no longer fixed there’s no longer a “universal” online experience. Culturally, this could be a good thing. It allows you to share experiences with other people beyond your age-group, sphere or region. If we’re all working from the same page, we at least have similar reference points.

As this is no longer the case, the internet is becoming a more individual experience. If you and your friend perform the same search and come up with different results, you’re more likely to find something different. This could be the same answer corroborated by two different sources or two different answers. The first one is world affirming – it makes you feel you can rely upon what you’ve found (even if both turn out to be wrong). The second is less helpful: how do know which one to trust or if there even is a right answer.

Depending on how you see the internet you’ll favour one or the other of these. The first sees it as an information resource, and here Google is meant to filter out the correct information for you. In this way, you can master unfamiliar topics in a matter of seconds. The second approach sees cyberspace as a mere information tool. If two answers don’t match it’s still up to you to work out what the truth is. The internet is a still a formidable tool, but only for someone who has the smarts to use it.

So which is it: a precision tool for experts or a leveler allowing everyone the same level of information? The reality is somewhere between the two, and thanks to Google, it’s as unclear as ever.

* Info security magazine estimated that there are over 190 Gmail accounts. Even including companies and people with two or more, Gmail users are in their hundreds of millions.