Recently, Google introduced a new feature called Google +1. The announcement is clearly aimed at facebook’s ‘like’ button. It will begin by adding a ‘+1’ button to each entry in a search result but soon it will be possible to have web sites add Google +1 buttons to go along with the facebook like buttons and twitter buttons and Digg buttons and all those other social features. Google will be prioritizing based on the +1 clicks by those in your Google contact list, but is expected to branch further and utilize twitter followers, picasa albums, and other ‘connections’. When the ability to put +1 buttons on web sites appears, it is likely that there will be anonymous rankings as well.
Google’s claims the feature will result in more relevant searches, but it is likely that the relevance that Google cares more about them regaining their position as the hottest company on the Internet. Google cannot enjoy the news that (i) facebook is now move visited than their site, (ii) Microsoft and facebook agreed to include facebook ‘likes’ in their search rankings, (iii) facebook is rumored of adding a search feature to their next page design, and (iv) critics praised the human element of the ‘like button’ because it blocked content farms and spam sites better than Google. In short, the +1 button is a reasonable reaction to competitive pressures. I cannot fault them for it.
However I find it a troubling extension of an already begun trend – the narcissistic Internet.
The Internet’s great virtue includes its wide variety of information and viewpoints. You might favor certain sites that agreed with your viewpoint, but the whole web was still there. The way you searched it all is based on its relevance as measured by your chosen search engine (based on market share, largely Google). The verb ‘google’ indicates a complete Internet search for a subject.
But starting in 2007, Google started to personalize searches. One form of personalization that most users are aware of is how Google uses IP geotagging to give you results for personal services, like exterminators, restaurants, etc. near your home. But another form of personalization was keeping an extensive history of your prior website visits and searches and then prioritizing them in your results. At first this was only for users who installed the toolbar and turned on the page rank meter. Then it was for most of those who installed the toolbar. Then it was for anybody with a Google account (usually a gmail account) who was logged in.
Finally, with little fanfare in early December 2009, Google began tracking on their servers the search history of everybody, whether or not they had a Google account. Since Google presented this as a way of tracking people with Google accounts while they were not logged in, the change got little notice. There would be an anonymous tracking cookie on the user’s system and 180 days of history utilized to ‘personalize’ the searches. At first there was a ‘show customizations’ link at the top of the results page, but this was moved to the bottom of the page and then eliminated altogether.
The introduction of personalized searches for everybody resulted in a change that most people still don’t realize occurred and aren’t talking about. Those still trying to sell search engine optimization services particularly want to keep this quiet. Google page results are now highly variable. What one person sees on the first page may be different than what somebody else sees on the first page. Somebody regularly visiting the Huffington Post is going to see huffingtonpost.com results near the top of the first page and be given the false impression that Google regards the Huffington Post as one of the most important sites on the Internet. Somebody who regularly visits Fox News will as a result see foxnews.com at the top of their search results and reach a similar false impression about Google’s view of the importance of foxnews.com to the Internet. After all, the favored site was near the top of the first page.
Personalized search results have made Google less of a window to the world, and more of a mirror of our own behavior. Google +1 will aid in only showing us the part of the Internet that agrees with us. It is hard to put all the blame on Google. But it is already way too easy for someone to spend their entire day surrounded with information they favor, and never hear a contrary voice. It makes it too easy to be rigid and unyielding when you think that everybody who matters thinks the same as you…even Google!
Google should be a tool against this trend, rather than a tool aiding it.