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.