A single change to the Google search engine has made the web less free and less fair.
We all know that every web site owners dream is to get to "Number One on Google". There are even books with just that or similar titles offering advice about how to get to the top of a Google search result. Many Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) companies promise to get you to number one as part of their advertising pitch. Even level-headed marketing men seem to regard being number one on Google as a legitimate goal and a mark of how effective they are being.
Think again... everything has changed.
A while back I got an excited email from a business associate saying "just type in the following search phrase into Google and see who comes out top?!"
Clearly the search term was key to their line of business and I assumed that they would be revealed as the number one company according to Google. I typed the phrase in only to discover that my associate's company wasn't listed on the first page, nor the second, nor the third.... I eventually found them on page twenty something. I thought that something must have gone wrong and so phoned to find out what the problem was only to be greeted by incredulity. When they typed in the phrase their company was top of the list - they were number one on Google.
Of course the fault must me mine - was I using Google.COM or had my browser strayed to a completely different territory?
This was not only puzzling it was embarrassing as the fact that the company was "Number One on Google" was being used as part of an advertising campaign - a claim that looked as if it had been made, at best, in error.
A little research soon revealed that the problem all stemmed from a little-noticed change in the way Google works that happened on December 4th 2009. Google decided to personalise all search results irrespective of whether or not the user had requested the facility or not - that is, customised search results are currently the default. Users can opt out of personalised search but given that many don't even know its happening this seems an unlikely scenario. Notice that this applies equally to users who are signed in or signed out of Google. For users who are signed out the customising of the search amounts to personalising the PC based on its most common user.
The personalisation works by taking account of the websites that you visit in the ranking. Previously websites that matched a search were presented to the user in order of their Google page rank, which was something Google computed to determine the importance of each page. Now page rank is still used but so is the frequency that a site is visited. For example, if you visit iProgrammer every day then the ranking of iProgrammer is higher for you than for other users who don't visit it. This means that iProgrammer could be returned as number one for a search phrase on your machine but much lower down on another user's computer.
This accounts for the embarrassing erroneous claim of being at the top of Google's search list. Of course the company's machines and users tend to visit the its own website quite often - often enough to make sure that it's number one for quite a few search phrases. As far as other users are concerned, however, nothing has changed and the company's page rank is what it always was.
If you own a website and Google it often then you are sure to see it at number one on Google if you just wait long enough.
As always Google isn't giving away much away about how things work but it is clear that your search patterns from the past 180 days are used to create the customisation. It also makes use of your inferred location to deliver sites that are region specific.
Now when you do a Google search you can tell that customisations have been applied by the appearance of a "View customisations" link in the top right hand corner. If you click on this you are taken to a page where you can disable customised results or view the current search without customisation.
What does all this mean? There are so many implications that it is difficult to know where to begin.
The most obvious is that there is no real sense in which a company can be "number one on Google" any more. It can be number one with no customisation but even if this is true - indicating a high page rank - the chances that it will be number one on a customised page is fairly low. So while a high page rank is still worth having it is less of a guarantee that the site will appear at the top of even the majority of search results.
It also means that unscrupulous SEOs now have a way of delivering on their promise to get a site to number one. All they have to do is "train" any machines that you might use to prefer the site in question and you would only know that this was a fairly meaningless result if you were alert to search personalisation.
Perhaps as important - search is no longer a shared experience and it will tend to reinforce your existing perceptions. If I search on "global warming" then if I've proved myself convinced and concerned by the problem by my previous searches then I will tend to get sites that are convinced and concerned. If a colleague has demonstrated that they don't believe in global warming by their searches then they will get a completely different feel for the state of the web and think that the most important sites are against the idea of global warming.
You can generalise this reinforcement to other areas - politics, race relations, finance, philosophy and so on. Clearly personalised search results are a bigot's charter and negate any effect the web might have had on presenting the world as it actually is.
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