Monday, 30 April 2012

The answer to your question... depends on who you are (Anne Rooney)

Google tailors the results of your searches to suit what it thinks you want to find. That sounds quite benign and helpful, doesn't it? Sometimes, it is helpful. But I don't want Google - a mindless machine - to filter information. I know better than Google what I'm interested in. And sometimes, I might be looking not for what I want to find but for what someone else would find.



The Google bias came into sharp focus the other day when I was doing some research for a new novel. On my laptop, a Google images search for 'Borromeo' came up with just the right thing - lots of images of a sixteenth-century cardinal. I wanted to print one to stick in my workbook for the novel, but the colour printer isn't wifi'd to the Mac, so I did the same search on the PC, logged in as Small Bint.


This time, Google images showed lots of pictures of an Italian model called Beatrice Borromeo.

So Google knows I like dead cardinals and Small Bint likes fashion. This seems harmless, if irritating. But now I'm worried. What if there is a porn star or a serial killer called Borromeo? I won't see his image when searching for Borromeo. Small Bint won't - she'll see fashion models. Now posit a reader of this novel-in-progress. And let's suppose the reader shares a computer with a family member who likes looking at porn sites or real crime sites. When they search for more info about the character, they see the porn star or the vicious killer.

Google's tailored search results make it hard to check that things are safe. I've always Googled the names of principal characters, just in case. But now Google is so careful not to show me what it thinks I don't want to see, who knows what other people will find?

Of course, it's possible to search not logged in as anyone, or go to the library and search on a different computer. But I don't like the idea that the information has been filtered like this. And I don't like having to remember that Google's top results might not overlap with what someone completely different would see.

If I were to come over all philosophical, I'd say it was quite profound - do I see blue like you see blue? Do things I don't know about exist? Nice as the philosophical pondering is, when you just want to know if a character is a cardinal, a model or a porn star, it's not much use.


12 comments:

Sue Purkiss said...

I didn't realise Google did that. I agree, there's something disturbing about it.

Have always been interested in the colour thing - whether we all see the same thing when we see blue...

kathryn evans said...

That is creepy.

Katherine Langrish said...

I'm glad you told me that - it's food for thought. I don't know what Google will make of me, then. I've spent a lot of time recently googling helicopter crashes, machine guns, street gangs, the Taliban, extreme right wing churches, and the street value of cocaine.

Stroppy Author said...

Kath, you can tell what they think of your from ads you get on the side of the page. If they are for Kalashnikovs and cocaine, you know you've made it!

Sue Purkiss said...

Watch out for that early morning knock on the door, Kath...

J.C. Hendee said...

Here's a better option than fear. Stopping using Google and start using Startpage.com. It submits searches to Google but screens out tracking information that Google stores about you, your browser, the machine you are on, etc. While the interface may be slightly less convenient, if you learn it right, you'll get 90% of the control you find in the Google search page. And you'll get more privacy.

Carole Anne Carr said...

Never going to be sure that what we see is the same seen by everyone else...

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, J C Hendee, but it's not the privacy that bothers me particularly. That's irksome, but not a big deal as I'm not doing anything I'm ashamed of or that can ever get me into any trouble. It's whether I see the same as other people see that is the issue.

Ann Evans said...

I didn't know Google did that either. I thought the same results came up for everyone. Thanks JC Hendee for the tip about Startpage.com - just tried it out and it seems a good alternative.

Hazel Edmunds said...

Best search engine if you want to drop Google search for good is DuckDuckGo. Other option is to look for workshops etc with titles such as "Beating Google into Submission".

Katherine Langrish said...

I'm noticing a strange absence of any ads at all. Today I was googling 'speeches by Hitler.'

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