Personalized search: Searching in a Bubble?

Thu, Jun 3, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Personalized search: Searching in a Bubble?

    My Google search results are looking too familiar.  Looking for something new on the web for a topic of continuing interest, I enter some familiar terms. The same old sites keep turning up. OK, so Google is returning the most relevant results, based on the Google algorithm.  Why do they seem so stale?

    Is it déjà vu or is it personalization?

    As a user of Google Toolbar and Web History, I am aware that I have opted in to sending all my search terms and sites visited to Google’s servers, where they are archived indefinitely. “In order to provide the service, Web History saves information about your web activity, including pages you visit and searches on Google.”

    The convenience to me is that in my Web History I can browse or search all the queries I’ve done and all the sites I have seen. For a memory overloaded with URLs and a bookmark list stuffed with hundreds of unedited and forgotten links, Web History is a good thing.

    For my privacy, not so much of a good thing.

    “In addition to enabling the Web History functionality, the information we collect when you use Web History may be shared among all of our services in order to provide you with a seamless experience and to improve the quality of our services. We will not disclose this information to other companies or individuals, except in the limited circumstances described in our main Google Privacy Policy, or with your consent.” – Web History privacy FAQ

    But Web History is not just a memory-jogging convenience and a trove of useful information for Google. It uses the trail of my searches and may use “use additional information about your activity on Google or other information you provide us” (like what?) in order to “deliver a better search experience.”

    I’m not sure about that. So far it seems to me that the results are skewed towards what I’ve already seen rather than the whole wide web that’s out there. It seems as if what I’m retrieving is a results list manipulated to please me based on what I’ve done in the past, not an objective view of what’s most relevant. The serendipitous experience has been buried ‘way down on the results list.

    What happened to PageRank?

    Resolved: I’m going to extricate myself from personalization and see what happens. Side effect:  I’ll be protecting my privacy, too.

    For tips on opting out of varied Google services and protecting privacy, I again recommend Computerworld’s “smart paranoid’s guide to using Google.”

    Following the recommendations there, I’m turning off Web History, which is available in my Google Account because I subscribed to it.  In My Products, click on Edit – and then “Remove Web History permanently.” Or to selectively edit Web history, in My Products, go to Web History,  and click on “Pause” – to temporarily stop recording web history  — or “Remove Items”  — to edit your history items —  or Clear your Entire Web History. This will affect your Google searching on all your computers and all your browsers when you are signed on to your Google account.

    Another way to depersonalize your search results is to sign out of your Google account. But there is still built-in search customization, based on a browser cookie. “When you’re not signed in, Google customizes your search experience based on past search information linked to your browser, using a cookie. Google stores up to 180 days of signed-out search activity linked to your browser’s cookie, including queries and results you click.”

    To disable the customizations to signed-out searches, follow these instructions:

    1. In the top right corner of the search results page, click Web History.

    2. On the resulting page, click Disable customizations.(Because this preference is stored in a cookie, it’ll affect anyone else who uses the same browser and computer as you).

    Remember, though, if you are signed out of your Google account, you won’t have your Google bookmarks! Weighing the choice between convenience and  privacy is indeed a quandary.

    I’m going to try to stick to this and will return with my thoughts on personalized search versus native search results.

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