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December 16, 2009

I search, you search, everybody's different search

Google just made a big change, and pretty much nobody noticed.

Search Engine Land has an article up that explains what's going on and why you should care. In a nutshell, Google is now remembering the kind of results that you like and is going to show you more results in the same vein. (More on how it works here.) This happens even if you don't have a Google account, or even if you're not signed in to it. That's the biggest change (personalized search has already been in place for those signed in to their Google accounts for quite a while).

While this is convenient, sure, there are a couple of things to think about here. First, just because you Googled something and the result that you liked was third down from the top doesn't mean that you can tell your friend to go Google the same search term and expect her to see the same hits. We're going to have to get more precise when we direct others to information that we've found through Google, because they might not get the same results that we did.

Another concern is that this could lead to us all being more and more walled into our own comfortable little corners and worldviews on the web. According to the first article, Google's product manager, Johanna Wright, says that they want the results "in personalized search to be skewed to the user, but we don’t want that to mean the rest of the web is unavailable to [the user].” I'm glad that they're trying to integrate tailoring PLUS diversity, but I have to wonder how well they can pull of both of those goals at the same time. And think about it: if a website doesn't show up in your Google search, just how likely are you to find it? Not very, would be my guess. (If you're not already incorporating other search engines into your routine to get a better-rounded set of results, now would be a great time to start. Try directories like Yahoo! Directory or About.com, too.) So if Google is only "telling you want you want to hear," you could miss out on the other side of the argument. In a liberal arts university setting, where critical thinking is a major goal, we need to be giving thought to this possibility.

And... then there's just the creepy factor. Google already knows pretty much everything about me, between my Gmail, my Blogger, my Google Reader account, and all of the other G-tools I use on a daily basis. We're all making a deal and hoping it's not with the devil. But we're putting a lot of information into Google's hands and a lot of faith in their promise to not "be evil." Search Engine Land compares this new personalized search to an "eerie librarian" who remembers everything you've ever said or done in the last six months. Hands up, who wants me to have THAT kind of memory?

Just some food for thought.

Posted by KellyAddleman at December 16, 2009 11:26 AM

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