You Are Your Search Engine

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Search engines are handy tools for sure, but were you aware that your search engine knows you probably better than you know yourself? Are you also aware that your search engine may be responsible for narrowing your views and information sources?

A good experiment to try is to perform several different searches on your computer and then do the same searches on your work computer or your wife’s computer. You will find that the results will most likely be different, and the differences will be based on past search history. This is referred to as the “Filter Bubble”. As an example, I did a search on the word “China” on my computer and it came up with mostly results related to economics and the political situation. The same search on my wife’s computer came up with travel and art results. I was on the phone once recently with a friend of mine who tends to be quite a bit more conservative in his politics than I am. When I asked him to do a search related to GMO crop issues, his results were totally different than mine. My first few pages were mostly news sites and blogs tailored to the “liberal” person, whereas his results were mostly the “conservative” news sites and blogs.

This may appear to the user as a convenience, but I believe it may be one of the major players in the ever-increasing polarization of America. It is also probably serving as a large factor in the dumbing of America. People are receiving only information tailored just for them based on prior searches, sites they have visited before, and their “click history”. The end result of this is a user that is only subjected to a very narrow and pre-biased set of results, which will only get narrower as time goes on.

The “Liberal” will get more liberal, and the “Conservative” will get more conservative. Nobody will be allowed to see any views that are different than their own, thereby perpetuating the mindset.

It’s just like the guy who watches MSNBC all day trying to have a logical discussion with the guy that watches FOX News all day, it ain’t gonna happen!

There are some search engines available that will not “bubbleize” you. As an example, StartPage and DuckDuckGo

Get away from Google and you may find that there is a world full of information you were never aware of!


Bill H. Added Oct 28, 2015 - 9:23pm
Exactly! We certainly find these days that one side has no idea about the information that the other side may rely on for their argument. I think the climate change debate is a good example. Back in they day, we all read the same newspaper and watched the same two or three newscasters, so we all started with the same information. I used to listen to short wave radio to try and get opinions from the rest of the world.
Johnny Fever Added Oct 28, 2015 - 10:09pm
No matter the computer I get pretty similar results when I do a search. 
America, and the rest of the world for that matter, isn’t getting dumber, thanks to the internet, we’re all getting a lot smarter.  It used to be that whatever was seen on ABC, NBC and CBS or the major newspapers said was the only information we received.   Now we can get information from a slew of different websites, in addition to the old standbys. 
I don’t think the media is to blame for the fact our politics are so polarized.  But I think it’s good that if someone doesn’t want to listen to liberal tainted news they don’t have to and vice versa.  In other words, rather than tune out the news because of its bias we tune in the news to feed our bias.  Which again suggests we’re more informed today than in the past.  I just wonder what right leaning voters did prior to the existence of Fox News. 
Bill H. Added Oct 29, 2015 - 12:11am
Johnny - Maybe you do similar searches on different computers. Do you use Google? I don't think that "feeding a bias" is really a good thing. If people want to get smarter, I think they need to see the big picture and have the ability to make decisions based on this.
Yes, computers were originally designed to provide information to humans that would help in the decision process. We are finding now that computers are being relied on more to make the decisions for us. When the information we get from a search engine is narrowed down to what it knows we like, we will no longer get a wide spectrum to see the big picture. I see more younger people these days answer virtually every question they have using Google. I find that a bit scary. Will we no longer need to invoke the thought process?
Computers do many things well if used correctly. In the case of filtered searches, I don't agree this is a good thing.
Utpal Patel Added Oct 29, 2015 - 9:05am
The polarization of America happened because the trainwreck that occurred at the end of the Bush Presidency. In 2008, McCain and the Republicans got trounced, paving the way for partisan rule by the Democrats. The country wasn’t ready for such a turn to the left.  If Obama had sought bipartisan legislation in his first two years, the political environment today would (IMHO) be far less partisan. 
Leroy Added Oct 29, 2015 - 10:01am
I agree with Crin for the most part.  I imagine that Google being of the liberal persuasion likely returns more liberal results in general.  I have no evidence to that fact, but there are some curious results to some searches that have been identified.
I don't like Google's politics, but I do like the company Google.  It's a great company.  Any who wouldn't want results tailored for them.
For your information, you can turn off these features.  I have.  The only one I left was the "Ok Google" or whatever it is called today.  It can refine my voice commands over time.  Privacy is what I give up to make it happen.  If you have a Google account, or Facebook, take a look at the default options.  You might be amazed at just how pervasive it is.  I see the benefits; I see the risks.
Bill H. Added Oct 29, 2015 - 12:14pm
Uptal - you have your own ideas on this subject, I was just stating that the search engine "bubble" is probably one of the main factors in creating the "bubble-thinking" that we see today. Also factoring in the tailoring of news and media to either a Right or Left appetite. You certainly can't deny that is has to be part of the puzzle.
I have been using Startpage for several years to avoid the tracking and stereotyping of Google. The search results from Google on quite a few occasions some time back were even different between my computer and my wife's computer. This was not only the ads, but also the results of the search. Not so on a specific search with multiple words such as "Sex life of the Persian Flea", but very obvious on single word searches such as Water, Weather, Privacy, War, etc.
I don't have a Google account and rarely ever use Google these days. I disagree with their views on personal privacy. This is a prime example.
Here is a read on it: The Filter Bubble
Utpal Patel Added Oct 29, 2015 - 3:25pm
Let’s not forget it wasn’t long ago that we didn’t have a search engine to fact check or seek ulterior views to the ones being expressed in the main stream media.  I think it’s good that Google attempts to find us websites that we’re most interested in reading.  It’s not like Google reads each website, decides if the content is left leaning or right leaning, makes determination about which way you lean and then matches you with political websites that agree with your point of view.  I personally wouldn’t use Google if it did something like that because I’m genuinely interested in what leftists believe and what news they are likely to agree with.   
Bill H. Added Oct 29, 2015 - 5:09pm
It's EXACTLY what Google does! Read up on Goggle-bots.
I will try to find a read that I saw a couple years back on them and post the link.
Bill H. Added Oct 29, 2015 - 6:41pm
Here is another read on this subject. It is a book review on a book entitled The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser.
The Filter Bubble
Utpal Patel Added Oct 30, 2015 - 11:58am
It’s not exactly what Google does.  It does not assess your political persuasion or the political persuasion of the websites it searches and looks for matches.  However, if you should happen to visit Fox News and you look for a story on the IRS scandal, it will give you information from Fox News ahead of other news sources.  So it’s not like Google is sizing you up and giving you political red meat, it’s simply responding to your preferences based on prior searches. 
Bill H. Added Oct 30, 2015 - 12:03pm
Whether Google serves your results based on politics, interests, hobbies, income, geographic location, ethnicity, it is all the same. As far as the Google algorithm goes, they are all part of the equation.
Utpal Patel Added Oct 30, 2015 - 12:31pm
If you read my comment you’d realize that “politics, interests, hobbies, income, geographic location, ethnicity” have nothing to do with search results.  The only thing that matters is past clicks.
Bill H. Added Oct 30, 2015 - 3:48pm
Yes, all are based on "past clicks" I was just using examples.
Bill H. Added Oct 30, 2015 - 10:37pm
Correct Joanna, but most people never get any further than half way down page one. Best SE to use is StartPage in my opinion. It appears to be a Google proxy that allows one to search without being stereotyped and tracked, and still get Google search results. I for one like to read political and international articles, but be able to get search results that are not full of both the extreme right and extreme left whacko sites.
Bill H. Added Oct 31, 2015 - 2:41pm
And life was indeed good before computers got to the point of taking control of our lives, rather than being our trusty assistants as they were originally intended to be. As computers become more powerful and faster, we as humans are becoming less capable of applying our former thought and reasoning processes.
Bill H. Added Nov 1, 2015 - 3:21pm
Crin, again you are right. It is our fault. A computer just simply runs the software that we humans wrote. Just like a gun does not kill, the bullet does. My first machine was an Altair 8800 back in 1975. The first program I wrote was a random number guessing game using machine code and operated by the front panel switches. I still have it stored on paper tape and a Tarbell encoded cassette.
I pretty much despise "Big Data" these days due to their mission to totally eliminate our personal privacy for their monetary gain.
We all just sat back and let it happen over the years.
Cullen Writes Added Nov 2, 2015 - 12:06am
Google does this on a limited basis if you're not signed in. But if you are signed, then you're getting very personalized results tailored to you.
Bill H. Added Nov 2, 2015 - 11:23am
One other factor I forgot to mention was it seemed more apparent on Windows 8 versus Windows XP. I'm not sure why that would have been the case. At one time I had 5 computers I was working with (home and work) with various flavors of Windows when I first noticed this occurring. My first experiment was to do a search on the word turkey. Within the same day I got different results on the various computers, some would populate the page with bird information, the others with information on the country. I was not signed into Google on any of them. Prior to finding a "generic" browser, clearing cookies after each session on all computers seemed to minimize the problem. Some years back, it was easy to change an IP address by powering down the modem for about an hour several times a week. This does not seem to work anymore.
Stone-Eater Added Nov 2, 2015 - 12:36pm
I don't see any problem here, as long as people are actually READING the article which belongs to the link.
Of course, when I google "conservative" only I'll get nowhere. I might therefore search for "politics conservative definition", and then get several choices.
Then I might search for "politics conservative USA Europe comparison". Then I get several choices, not exactly what I look for, but for example:
When I take the effort to dig a bit deeper I usually find what I'm looking for - and I can integrate it into my proper logic - or, sometimes, it can change my view because I am better informed than before LOL
Stone-Eater Added Nov 2, 2015 - 12:41pm
BTW: When my browser closes, all history is deleted, and I never browse being logged in anywhere, and I'm also not using Chrome. This way my search is starting in a neutral position.....I suppose. I have all updates disabled, no location sniffing turned on, and very often I use proxies.
Bill H. Added Nov 2, 2015 - 3:55pm
SEF - All that you suggest is the way to go for sure! I wouldn't touch Chrome with a 10 foot pole, as we can all imagine it's main reason for existence.
Johnny Fever Added Nov 3, 2015 - 6:41am
For whatever it's worth, I also got the same results on Startpage as I did on Google and I'm a huge Republican supporter.
Bill H. Added Nov 3, 2015 - 11:22am
Johnny - Try doing 3 or 4 of the same searches on several different computers on Google using you friends computers. Best results will be if some of your friends are different in their views from you. I have read that search results on Google are not only based on what they store about you in their servers, but also by data stored on the user's end, which can be eliminated by deleting history and cookies every time you close your browser as SEF suggests, which is a good thing to do anyway to protect your privacy. 
Stone-Eater Added Nov 4, 2015 - 3:04pm
Even in Europe Internet access (I don't know about search results with a newly set up PC) is different. When I was in Belgium lately (EU) I couldn't get into neither PirateBay, Isohunt nor Kickass, and here in Switzerland we have no problem. Also, Tor seems to be a problem for a UK friend, he has to use proxies on top of it...
Bill H. Added Nov 5, 2015 - 1:23am
Here's a new one for you - Has anyone noticed occasional commercial spots on certain cable TV networks being geared towards certain personal tastes, medical conditions, or criteria? This is being tested in my area and a few others. It also is based on Internet activity, along with location information derived from sources such as Waze and other GPS based apps and past purchasing info from selected retailers. Two methods are used to do this. One being spots downloaded to your DVR and played during selected windows. The other being spots spliced into streams sent from the origination point to the customer set top box and played in real time.
Stone-Eater Added Nov 5, 2015 - 5:24am
Wow...but I guess that's a logical development. In 10 years TV as we know it now will be history anyway. I thought it would come even sooner.
Bill H. Added Nov 8, 2015 - 11:20am
Here is some additional info on television targeted advertising.
Initially, most of the subscriber profile is based on internet activity, but will be also sourced from other databases such as supermarket club card purchasing info, shopping data from select retailers and credit card companies, along with phone GPS data from shopping malls and other select geographic locations.
Lem Bray Added Nov 26, 2015 - 11:29am
And if you search to make a purchase your in box gets filled with adds on the item you've all ready purchased.
Searching has become frustrating for me as a result of what you are saying Bill.  In order to change it you have to delete your cookies which also deletes the cookies you would like to keep.  A no win situation.
Bill H. Added Nov 26, 2015 - 11:46am
Exactly, Lem! More and more sites won't allow any connection unless one has cookies enabled. I actually went to a site a week ago that started playing a voice audio ad for a new auto of the brand that I was looking for and comparing. I'm sure the targeted TV ads will start soon, along with the junk mail. I'm guessing that the next step may be digital billboards that sense your GPS position and begin to display a target ad until you drive by, or targeted audio ads streamed directly to your satellite radio in your car, or worse yet, displayed on your heads-up display on the new cars.
Barry aka. Hyperminde Added Nov 26, 2015 - 11:30pm
RE (Bill H): next step may be digital billboards that sense your GPS position and begin to display
Like "Minority Report" (2002) ... and also "Total Recall" (1990) if I remember correctly ... maybe not exactly the same advertising tech.
Richard Plank Added Dec 2, 2015 - 7:14am
Interesting article and some interesting comments.
Since I teach this course at both the UG and Grad levels at a major Research 1 institution I have managed to learn a bit about the topic.  We teach two courses now which are closely connected and in fact overlap and are both partially staffed by practitioners in the field. Both courses take an advertising agency perspective.  And another colleague of mine spent a whole bunch of time in industry providing the technology that makes all this possible.  Interestingly it takes about 0.36 seconds on average from when you pull up a website until that pop up ad actually occurs and sometimes they get it right sometimes they don't.  Much of it is done by the bots, buying space, selling space and placing it and that automation is increasing.  One of the guys who helps us teach the course started what is now the biggest digital ad agency and then sold it for $150 million.  He is about to start a new venture in the area, not in agency work.
The big issue with all of this  has been monitarization; that is how do I get money for what I am doing.  That has come a long way and the major players have figured it out, just took a while, but someone has to pay for this and guess what it is you. 
I personally use DuckDuckGo from time to time to avoid some advertising.  And I can use Tor if I want to try and hide, but I suspect that is not foolproof and I really don't have much to hide anyway.
The company you can all access on the web, at least one of them, for learning about all of this is Market Motive.  Their main clients are advertising agencies who want to become digital advertising agencies and while they are not the only player in this marketplace we use them and our students take many of their modules and get certificates of professional accomplishment which has some value in the job marketplace.
Lem Bray Added Jan 8, 2016 - 9:09am
Google Chrome was the search engine I used when ASK invaded and took over Google Chrome on my computer.  Plus ASK locked me out of many of my files and ended up putting it in a hostage situation costing me over $100 in ransom.
There is no safe search engine because they are the target to get into you and because they sell you out.
Duck was good for a short time.  You could actually get what you were searching for instead of ads Duck was selling.  Most search engines are useless in doing real searches now because you have to wade through all of the ads to find what you are looking for.  Often several dozen pages.
Lem Bray Added Feb 12, 2016 - 4:26pm
Peace, Jane!

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