Just Google it?

The availability of search engines like Google provides an easy way of checking on factual claims you may find questionable – just enter the relevant keywords into a search engine and see what comes up. If such a search produces nothing to support the claim, or evidence to refute or qualify it, then it’s time to start demanding evidence.

This started me thinking about a more general problem with search engines. Using search engine results in the way I suggest rests on the assumption that a given query will produce given results. The same is true if I want to say “Site X is the top result on engine Y for query Z”. But what happens if, as is already possible, search results are personalised, based on, say, previous search history and choice among search results. The same search, undertaken by someone else, might produce completely different results.

Personalisation has some obvious benefits. if I’m searching for bus routes in Brisbane, I probably don’t want results about Brisbane, California. But it undermines the usefulness of search engines results as evidence in analysis or argument.

Full-scale personalisation might get us to the point feared by writers like Cass Sunstein. Dogmatic leftwingers or rightwingers, supporters and opponents of the Iraq war, and so on, might be presented exclusively with search results that confirmed their prejudices, and might never realise that they were looking at a completely different Web to that seen by someone with different views. This process would work only for people who usually don’t follow search results that lead to views contrary to their own – personalisation would reinforce this tendency until it became automatic.

24 thoughts on “Just Google it?

  1. Strikes me that a search engine like Google, which generally tries to be honest and open about what’s happening, would put in a nice prominant place, just before the results and again before the page list (like with the current Google Book search ad thingy) a message that “These results have been personalised. Click here to search again without personalisation enabled”. Then, any blog worth reading would always link to the unpersonalised version, and anyone else doing any sort of research on Google would also use the unpersonalised version.

    Best of both worlds, no questions asked.

  2. Google is on the way out as the worlds premier source of answers fast. For the simple provision of answers to questions, wikipedia is already far superior.

    Google it is sometimes argued is less biased than open content projects like Wikipedia because of the impersonal nature of google’s algorthym, but I would aruge that the results reflect what is prevalent in just the same way as Wikipedia does.

  3. Kieran,
    Wikipedia is great if I want a considered view on a topic (or even an occasionally non-considered view) but if I am looking for blogs on Australian politics it is not that useful. I have recently been looking for articles on various topics relating to my work and wiki has been useful, but the new google scholar [scholar.google.com] has been even more useful in allowing me access to various academic articles. Horses for courses.
    I agree with T A M’s suggestion, though. Personalisation will make my life easier by presenting results closer to what I want, but being able to turn it off for discrete searches will be essential. I do not want to have to add and remove bits to get a full result set. Fortunately, Google have already thought of that:

    [From the FAQ]
    How can I stop getting personalized search results?

    Any time you’d like to get standard results for a search, you can simply click the “Turn OFF Personalized Search for these results� link on the search results page.

  4. With Goggle you have the option (not the need) to personalise your searches if you like. In general it might be a dangerous option to exercise as Cass Sunstein points out. Just as a monopolist vendor can perfectly price discriminate clients via the Web, on the basis of their postcode or other data, to eliminate any surplus they might enjoy, so too can a search engine manipulate what it wants to give you to your disadvantage. I fear intrusion of economic self-interest. Also I am sometimes interested in what others would uncover when they do the same search I do. Finally, even if commercial advantage is not sought I would prefer to apply the filter myself on each search — then I understand the way the filter is being applied — presumably it is a rough procedure that cannot account for taste changes.

  5. Don’t you find that with Wikipedia there is some bias or spin at times? As I understand it the general public contributes so on some political topics the type of information available depends on the perspective of the contributer(s).

  6. Ansearch (http:www.ansearch.com.au) has an interesting alternative.

    Every time you log in you enter your age and gender. An applet records which results you actually click on and gives those results a higher ranking for future queries from people of the same age and gender.

  7. Orang,

    Wikipedia’s content depends on the sum of its contributers perspectives. The whole point is that absolutely anyone can contribute, add to, edit, rearrange and even request the deletion of a page. Anyone can flag pages for bias, request more indepth content or a page reorganization. That’s the whole point, it’s open content.

    Various checks exist to prevent the whole thing going haywire, and generally they work (for instance people with logins can have a favorites page that displays all new changes to pages they are watching, there is a record of all versions of the page ever, etc etc).

    Wikipedia’s content is the product of a consensus of its users (when there is conflict, admins resolve if through a rough and ready consensus process on talk pages).

    The answers to the question that the vast majority of people seek on a daily basis can be found on wikipedia, although no it isn’t great for searching microsofts knowledge base or finding new Australian politics blogs. For “checking on factual claims you may find questionable”, for finding answers to specific questions, Wikipedia surpasses google and people in greater numbers are starting to realise it.


  8. A bit like Weblogs like this one….. people tend to stick to sites that reinforce their own political persuasion… a sort of self censoring….. I’m on the right of the political spectrum but like visiting here because I think it is healthy to hear the opposite points of view to your own. And – occasionally fun to bait the readers with a cariacatured point of view from the right!!!!

  9. Some of us have a life, Andrew, and there’s just not enough time to read every blog (how many gazillion are there now?). So it becomes a matter of priorities; do you want to read the same old same old from people like Blair, or do you read the pages that are likely to have informed comment (from all sides), like Prof Q?

  10. Absolutely agree Zoot….. I like this site because it is very intelligent commentary from a very different perspective from mine. I don’t agree with 90% of what’s written – but it challenges my thinking…. and that is the only way to grow.
    Unfortunately, in my view very few people like listening to opposite points of view and tend to gravitate to sites that just reinforce their own view. Which was the point of my original post in response to JQ’s original premis that automation of search is self censoring… search is self censoring at the moment when it’s manual – so why worry about automation!!

  11. Wikipedia is by nature anarchic. A sought of dictionary and a punters forum. I like it, because it is sometimes humourous and fun. Some ‘facts’ that you may have to confirm. Not perfect, but look at established media, there is the big joke.
    Suspect, that we may well need such sources when Fairfax is gobbled up in the next round of Howard ‘reforms’.

  12. There are 100s (1000s?) of search engines and the overlap between their results is usually considered to be about 15% – see for example twingine.com, which searches Google and Yahoo and puts the results side-by-side. If you don’t get a result on the first page of Google, try another engine. For Windows users, groowe.com has a useful toolbar that makes searching over different engines easy.

  13. joe2, Wikipedia is not anarchic (it’s archic?). It has very clear and strictly-enforced rules (like the three-revert rule “3rr”: If you revert an article (undoing another users editors) more than three times in a day, you can be blocked) and a very definite heirarchy (albeit a very flat one) (… in the 3rr, only sysops and higher can block you). It also has a god-king in the person of Jimmy Wales.

    The important bit about Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it. That’s how come it can work. With a knowledge base that you want to be useful, you either need to allow only a select few to edit, or you need to allow everyone to edit. Otherwise you’ll end up with the horrible bias. (Wikipedia still has a “systematic bias”, because the majority of people who write on the English Wikipedia are English-speakers from modern, technologically-advanced Western countries like America and Australia. We come with our cultural presumptions, even the people who try to be different. Wikipedia tries to deal with this with it’s “Countering systematic bias” project.)

    (One of the worst aspects of Wikipedia is all the mirror sites out there. You search for something to find more about it out, and you get half a dozen Wikimirrors on every google search page! It’d be really cool if you could eliminate all of them. Unfortunately, “-wikipedia” will occasionally remove potentially interesting sites, and frequently leaves in sites which don’t give credit where it’s due. For some topics, it renders Google almost useless.)

  14. I wrote: “If you revert an article (undoing another users editors)”.

    Obviously I meant to write: “If you revert an article (undoing other users’ edits)”.

    I blame the fact that the preview doesn’t have a spelling, grammar or intentionality test to determine whether I spelt correctly, and wrote grammatically and what I meant to write.

  15. The other factor with search engines is (with the exception of some specialist areas like genealogy) the results relate to sites, works, articles, etc since 1990 or so. People treat the Google results as exhaustive, when they are really just comprehensive for the last 15 years. I remember libraries and those old, dusty things with pages… what were they called? 🙂

    PS: I’d call Wikipedia anarcho-syndicalist. There are rules but they have evolved through members’ feedback and agreement and the site has no real power to enforce them.

  16. The following comments by Robert Fisk, famous (or notorious, if you’re a booster for the Iraq war) at


    may be of some interest ; – )

    “YE: What do you think about internet?

    RF: You know, I’ve got too much work to do. I haven’t got the time. I had a guy from the Boston Globe come to see me not too long ago and he said ‘oh, you should go to the internet. By 12 o’clock I’ve read the New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post, I’ve read the Daily Star, the Jerusalem Post,’ By 12 o’clock I’ve done 3 interviews and am writing a story for a paper, you know. Enough, enough. And I get about 250 real letters a week. Do you think I need any more?

    YE: But for people like us who are trying to catch up with you, it’s an instrument we use.

    RF: Look, if I use the internet, and email, I’d never get out of Beirut. I’d never finish my work. If someone actually wants to communicate, they can call on the phone, which costs them money, or they can write a proper letter which costs them time and effort. Most of the stuff I’ve seen when people show me emails are misspelled, ungrammatical, and stupid, and I’m not going to waste my time with it. I haven’t got time. I simply haven’t got the time. I want to work. I know what happens. I’ve seen people sitting there, just staring at the screen all the time, all the time. And I ring people up who are staring at the screen and you can’t have a serious conversation with them. And I’m sorry. I’ve got work to do. Quite a lot of journalists I know are basically giving up on email. They haven’t got the time to waste. It’s happening more and more. It’s a lovely machine. I mean, I’m sure it’s wonderful. I know how it works. I was talking to a University professor that just put out a message that said no more emails. He’s finished. He’s closing it down. He hasn’t got time to do it.”

  17. 1. Quiggers you would be on the right track argeuing for better scholarly search engines . (scholar.google.com is not much chop) I suppose the other question is of material below the level of scholarly source , that enables the interested amateur a glimpse or understanding of arguments at the scholarly level. I don’t think wikipedia provides you with that .
    2. THere needs to be more use of argument checking software , fact checking , model presentation i.e. the use of A.I. and graphical presentation , and the consensus of expert opiniion.
    3..FIsk again proves that he is not a reliable authority on anything outside his area of interest.

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