It’s probably fair to say that it’s only people like me that remember Google’s announcement in a blog in December 2009 that had the title: Personalised Search For Everyone”. I knew it was coming and I remember thinking this is going to change everything.
From that point onwards Google used 57 signals (which include things like what browser you’re using, what location you are logging in from, what you’ve searched for before etc) in order to evaluate your search trends and estimate the types of site you’re interested in. Originally this was only for people logged in however it wasn’t long before people who where logged out would be tracked as well.
What is personalised search?
The idea was to make the search results more personal to your requirements – the fabled personalisation of search. No more standardised Google. This personalised Google aims to deliver better quality sites more suited to your requirements, the websites get a better click through and more converting traffic so everyone’s a winner right?
Well yes and no. Google is probably the number one place that people turn to when they are looking for information. It’s somewhere where you get your world view from, imagine for one minute if you only ever read things that you agreed with, if you were never challenged in your views, you’d be incredibly insular and your world view would give you tunnel vision. Now imagine a world where everyone’s worldview is determined in the same way, never challenged, just reaffirmed day after day.
Imaging you’re a climate scientist and you search for a specific piece of research, this research is diametrically opposed to your own viewpoint however it’s important that you review the content to put your case forward forcefully in the future, however that one act of curiosity may tell Google that you favour the view of the piece, suddenly on a daily basis you are confronted with arguments against what you used to believe – how long is it before you start to form new beliefs based on the arguments put in front of you?
The thing is most people don’t even realise that Google is doing this; most people believe that search engines are unbiased benevolent overlords of information. When in fact they are the mechanism of a corporation with billions of dollars worth of agenda.
The Personalisation Era
The unremarkable announcement made through Google’s blog in December 2009, which was only really picked up by a hand full of us search engine marketing types has dramatically changed the world that we live in and how we receive information, if we live in the Information Age, then the Personalisation Era started on the 4th December 2009.
Why do search engines like personalisation?
It’s important to realise that when the internet first came into being it was an anonymous medium in which the user actively participated, as that medium has matured the principle revenue stream on the internet (advertising) has directed the way it has developed, websites owners collect masses of information about who you are and what you do so they can sell more products to you in the most qualified (therefore efficient) manner possible.
You think the internet is free, that the internet giants are giving you a good service for nothing, in fact the likes of Google, Facebook, Bing, Apply etc are charging you and you’re paying for their services in data, specifically data about yourself.
Why do internet companies collect so much information?
Most of the big boys have promised to keep this data to themselves – for now – but there are plenty of sites out there that are taking hold of your data and selling it on, every single click you make on the web can be sold to the highest bidder as reliable personal data about you.
It’s an incredible simple formula – the most personal data, the more chance of being able to make you click on an advertisement or buy a product, this is after all how the Internet has been monetized.
This isn’t just about the big guys though, in the next few years a website that doesn’t offer a personalised service will seem antiquated to the user.
It wouldn’t be so bad if this collation of data just shaped the things that we buy in the way the traditional marketing mediums did but it’s more than that because it’s applied across the spectrum of information that’s on the web.
Think about Facebook for a moment, the news feed you receive on a daily basis is personalised, the most recent news from the people and the subjects you’re interested in already. These feeds on social media websites are fast becoming one of the most common ways that people find out up to the minute news.
Ultimately, the algorithms that were put in place to sell more advertisements are beginning to surreptitiously manage and direct our lives.
Prediction Engines and Passive Media Individualism
It’s probably about time we stopped calling the likes of Google and Bing search engines, they’re much more than this, they are prediction engines, they look at what you’ve done, what people like you have done and then try and extrapolate a prediction about what you are going to do and what you’re interested in. Your interaction with the prediction engines alters the way you come into contact with ideas of the day. What’s more this is different from the way we have consumed media in the past because this is about us, we aren’t part of the herd of media consumption as we were before, you might think of this as Media Individualism.
Also when you interact with traditional media you know there are bias’ and you accept that, if you buy a newspaper it may be because you agree with that point of view, well in the new Personalisation Era you are conned into thinking the search engines are a force for unbiased good in the world. There is no way for you to let Google know that it’s got you all wrong in the way it perceives your interests and who you are. Basically, there is no way with Media Individualism based on algorithmic processes to determine what the overall bias is of the information you are reviewing (as it interacts with other pieces of information you’re reviewing).
Think about the information you’re receiving and how you are interacting with it, is it changing the way you live you life, the choices you make, the person you are? Ultimately, it is. Your own Passive Media Individualism is directing you.
This is determinism at work, information determinism, in which the odd stray click or erroneous junk/search can reshape your entire destiny in which your views become progressively narrower and narrower in which you become a caricature of your former self – worse still, so does everyone else.
The Language of the Personalisation Era
The language of the Personalisation Era is also shaping the things we see and review – who’s going to “Like” a massacre or some other negative event, it’s easier to “Like” your mate’s, mate’s clip on YouTube, posted on Facebook in turn making it more likely to be picked up by your social media contacts, all working towards reducing the scope of your worldview to things that you find pleasant or amusing.
How many times have you retweeted or tweeted some pointless drivel? The fact that the creators of Twitter chose to name it in a manner that has negative or at least frivolous connotations instructs the user not to take it too seriously and although the Arab Spring claims to have started on social media channels, by and large Twitter was not seen as a forum for serious debate.
Google have recently moved into this “Like” sphere allowing you to engage in the personalisation process directly (without fully understanding what it means), Google have created the +1 button that is being furiously added to websites all around the world. These buttons are however regardless becoming known as Like buttons – in this respect it would appear Facebook has already won the Like button arms race.
The Personalisation Era Society
When everyone’s views get more insular some funny things could start to happen to the way our society is shaped. Normally, we are forced to mix with a variety of people from various walks of life and this is where opportunities arise for development. In the Personalisation Era you meet less people that have differing views to yourself – this is quite the opposite of how it was envisaged the internet would work back at the start of the internet boom at the turn of the century.
It’s important to recognise that if we don’t meet people that aren’t like ourselves we start to build up a sense of “us and them” and lose our perception of the public sphere of which we are an active part.
It’s much more than getting rid of the irrelevant which is what the algorithms originally intended to do, what you like, isn’t always what you want or need.
The Internet can still be the egalitarian world crisis solving meta-brain that was envisaged by its founders, however before we get there we need to start to understand as users of the Internet how it works and why it works in that manner. We need to ensure that we wake up and don’t walk any further down the road of the Personalisation Era without deciding how we want to interact with the Internet and the global village as a whole.
We need to understand that there are agendas at work here and they will have a direct subversive impact on our perception of the world, the way we live our lives, our culture and our future.
Since the start of the industrialisation process we have perceived a reduction in the size of the world, perceiving time getting faster space decreasing as roads become superseded by canals, by railways, by aeroplanes. Instantaneous forms of communication such as emails, telephones and texts perpetuated this trend. Personalisation threatens making the world seem a very big, scary and tribal place once again.