Is Personalized Search Dangerous?

Late last week Google began rolling out personalized search. While I have no doubt that the new system will lead to more relevant results for the majority of searches I have some strong reservations about personalized search, a few specific to Google and a few about personalizing search in general.

Danny Sullivan posted an excellent write up, Google Ramps Up Personalized Search, and since he’s done a far better job than I would reviewing the new features I’ll let you read his overview to answer any questions about how the new search system will work.

The main reason for personalized search is obvious and is summed up in a simple statement on the Google Blog:

After all, you’re the only one who actually knows what you’re really looking for.

Pretty obvious right? For an oversimplified example think of typing the word ‘bass’ into a search engine. What should a search engine return in the results? Should they serve pages about bass guitars or bass fishing? You probably meant one or the other, but how could a search engine know your intention when you submitted the query?

The way they can know is by getting to know you more through things like your search history. If you’ve performed searches in the past for guitars and drums or clicked on results with a musical leaning in the past it’s likely you want to know about bass guitars when you performed your search for ‘bass.’

By getting to know you better Google will be able to present more relevant results and also make recommendations based on a history of things you’ve previously shown an interest in. It all sounds good, but not everyone thinks so, myself included.

Graywolf posted a couple times over the weekend about his dislike for personalized search.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say Google should kill personalized search, but I too have my concerns. Before I get to them let me say I think the majority of users are going to like the new more personalized results. For most people the results will be more relevant and most people will be happy not having to spend time refining queries to find exactly what they want. More often than not when we’re searching we probably are looking for something we’ve shown a past interest in.

I also have faith in the smart people at Google figuring out ways to use data about me to truly make search results more in line with what’s out there about me. The system is too new to make judgments about how well it works, but I feel confident the more you use it and let Google record your search history the better you’ll find the system working.

So why do I have reservations about a system I think most people will like and find helpful and one that I think will ultimately prove to work very well?

Google Specific Concerns

First I think Google has done a few things wrong in their implementation of personalized search. For one it’s automatically on if you’re signed into anything Google. Log into gmail, Webmaster Central, Reader, Docs and Spreadsheets, etc. If you’re signed into a Google account and decide to search at Google you’re using personalized search. The only way to get the more general search is to sign out.

It sounds easy enough, but how practical is it to to be reading your mail log out to perform a search and log back into gmail to read the rest of what’s awaiting you in your inbox. Or how about everyone who is logged in always to their Google home page. Reality says the majority will be using personalized search always. What’s more even if you do want out it might be easy to forget which search system you are using unless you have set up a personal home page and are searching from that. Think of all the other places online where you might be using Google search while not on the Google home page proper.

Google needs to offer us a better way to opt out of the system. We should all be opted out on default. Further Google needs to let us know whenever possible whether or not we are logged in or out before performing a search.

Another Google specific problem is the way they keep track of your search history. You can turn search history off, which will also opt you out of personalized search, but then you do lose that history if you want back in to the system. Is that really true though? While you can clear your own search history Google will still be retaining the data on their servers. Haven’t we learned enough from the AOL debacle. I don’t expect search engines to stop collecting search data. There’s simply too many ways they can use the information, but if you want to clear your history you should be allowed to clear your history. There’s no reason the information needs to be saved forever.

I also have one potential concern with the way Google might handle personalized search in the future. From Google Accounts Help:

Please note that content from your Gmail and AdWords services are not currently being used to personalize your search experience.

The emphasis above on the word ‘current’ is mine. Telling me you are not currently doing something makes me wonder if you might change your mind at a later date. It’s natural to think that email can show some strong indications of what I might be interested in. But I don’t want my mail being read any more than it already is by someone other than me or the person who sent that email. And what happens if gmail does become part of the personalized search collection. Will we be getting more spam so interests appear in our email that we really don’t have?

Generic Search Concerns

My main concerns with personalized search are more general and not Google specific. I’m going to have the same concerns when Yahoo and Live Search and Ask roll out their versions of personalized search. My main concern is that tying search results to search history will limit personal growth and risks locking people into a set of thoughts.

Let me use the same oversimplified example I used earlier. You clearly have an interest in bass guitars, but this coming weekend you and a few buddies are thinking of going fishing for bass. When you type ‘bass’ as a query are you going to see any results about bass fishing on page one? page two? How far might you have to go to find a good place to buy a fishing pole?

Not necessarily a dangerous thing and it is quite simplified. How about this example.

A few years ago you were a big supporter of the US war in Iraq. Every time you searched for something related to the war you showed an interest in information favorable to US policy. You’re a life long conservative. Fast forward to today and you’ve begun to question those same policies. You’re still conservative, but your initial support is wavering and you’d like to find some information about why the war might not be such a good thing. Are you going to be able to find that information easily? Or are your searches going to continue to return the same results they always have?

Is personalized search going to allow us to change our minds? Will it easily allow us to question thoughts we hold and look for alternative points of view?

Yes. I know. the answer is simple. Sign out of personalized search. But will people really be signing in and out of their accounts all the time. Think to the future when it’s become common to be always logged in to some search property and also think how you’ve generally been happy with the personalized results you’ve been receiving over the years. Are you going to remember to sign out before searching? Are you even going to remember that if you do you’ll see different results.

I think the you that is reading this probably will remember those things, but can you say the same about the general You than makes up the majority of the world?

You might think I’m exaggerating some here and that getting locked into the same thought patterns won’t happen. I’ll even agree that at first it probably won’t. But in time it will. It will happen just as spell check has eroded people’s ability to spell and recognize mistakes in grammar. Sure you spelled ‘their’ right, but didn’t you mean to use ‘they’re?’ As we come to rely on systems, particularly systems that work well, we forget how not to rely on those systems.

We are creatures of habit and my concern is at some point we won’t sign out. I’m sure if we refine queries enough we will be able to find that alternative point of view, but I question whether or not we will and I question whether or not we should have to. Isn’t the idea of searching to find something you didn’t know about? If I’ve shown a strong interest in bass guitars don’t you think I already know where to find them?

Are these concerns well-founded? I don’t know. They’re just concerns I have and it’s quite possible I’m wrong or some very bright engineers will figure out ways to make sure these things don’t happen. Google may make some changes to ensure we can opt out more easily. They may still show plenty of results that aren’t based on search history or other things they know about us. It’s far too early to know how the system will work and what results we’ll see. And in fairness to Google and personalized search in general I’m willing to take a wait and see attitude.

But I get the feeling the more we use personalized search the more we will begin to see our own ever shrinking corner of the web. And I think that may very well be a dangerous thing.

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  1. Only see our own ever shrinking corner of the Web? Good point, Steven. If Google merely limits what you see to specific topics or points of view, pigeonholing could be a problem.

    Personalization should be designed to reveal the full breadth of the data and enhance serendipity. The key is to make sure the personalization reaches beyond the obvious and into the surprising.

    If Google does that, their personalized search will help people discover new things they would not have found on their own.

  2. It would be nice to see it work more like Amazon recommendations where Google might suggest sites the others with the same interests have visited.

    In all fairness to Google this won’t just be about them. I assume all the major search engines, will roll out some kind of personalized search at some point. And maybe it will work in ways that doesn’t pigeonhole us. It’s too soon to know really.

    One other though occurred to me about this. If you look at Graywolf’s post about Google Video you can see they recommend he look at videos by Matt Cutts and Aaron Wall. Wouldn’t you think he’s already watched them or is at least aware of them and knows how to find them if he does want to watch them.

    Using SEO Book as an example I’ve been to the site a lot. I think I’ve read near every one of Aaron’s post for the last year and some of the older ones as well. I really don’t need Google showing me more of those posts when I search. I’ve read them and bookmarked many I want to read again. I also know I can search on the SEO Book site directly.

    I’m willing to wait to see how personalized search ends up working, but for now I see more not to like about it than to like about it.

  3. Well, I think this may not be as dangerous as you feel. Because they’re not using the Gmail and Adwords data. But what happens when you change opinions ? Thats a really significant concern. I guess we will be served with good results. I think Google might introduce some button to temporarily pause the Search History service.

    I think they do have such an option. But I would prefer it to be somewhere near the homepage to make my life easier. I predict more spam these days. Since Social bookmarking and web 2.0 in general have been given more importance, and others should look out. Blackhats may blow their servers.

    And, I think Google has a big eye on improving adsense with this new feature. Just think how useful it would be to render ads to people who’re searching for it. It would surely increase CTR. And, google may add a program to adwords where advertisers can target people who search for something like it.

  4. I think the danger is due to Google not making it obvious that your search results are personalized to you and your neighbor may be getting a different set of results. By giving results based on your past Google will be reinforcing whatever thoughts you currently hold.

    Here’s an overly dramatic example. Let’s say you belong to a hate group. It doesn’t matter which. Because of your past search history and the sites you’ve clicked on and visited sites that might be able to encourage you not to hate could slowly be filtered out of the results you see in future searches. The sites that continue to promote your hatred are the ones that rise to the top of the SERPs and since those are the only ones you see it reinforces your hate.

    It’s an over the top example I know, but I think it’s realistic. People re-evaluate their thoughts and values all the time and it’s good that they do since it’s how we all grow as people. But in order to re-evaluate and grow we need to have new information with viewpoints that differ from our own come in front of us. We can all still go out looking for those alternate viewpoints it’s true. But I think Google has just made it a little harder.

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