At first Google used a method it called “PageRank” to order search results so that the pages that were most linked to from other pages were shown at the top. The developers eschewed advertising because it would bias the ordering of search results. However after it became the most popular search site on the internet it became a very profitable business and that changed.
In 2004 Google started offering services such as Gmail that required users to login. This enabled Google to get huge amounts of data about its users. For example, it could cross-reference the data from the emails the users sent and received with their searches and come up with “a theory of identity for each user” and categorise users according to their personal preferences using algorithms.
From 2009 Google changed the way it decided what search results it would show. It announced it would use 57 signals for an algorithm to decide which results were the most relevant to the user and the user was most likely to click on. These signals included where a user was located and what browser they were using and any other information that could be gleaned from their search history, what they had clicked on before, or information they had offered Google, for example, via their gmail. The aim was to ensure the results were relevant to the user. This meant that different people would see different results for the same search term.
Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, asked two of his friends to search for the term "BP" at a time when BP's oil rig was leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Although the friends were "pretty similar—educated white left-leaning women who live in the Northeast... the results they saw were quite different. One of my friends saw investment information about BP. The other saw news. For one, the first page of results contained links about the oil spill; for the other, there was nothing about it except for a promotional ad from BP".
Reference: Eli Pariser. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin. 2011, p. 37.
If Google sees that I log on first from New York, then from San Francisco, then from New York again, it knows I’m a bicoastal traveler and can adjust its results accordingly. By looking at what browser I use, it can make some guesses about my age and even perhaps my politics. How much time you take between the moment you enter your query and the moment you click on a result sheds light on your personality. And of course, the terms you search for reveal a tremendous amount about your interests. Even if you’re not logged in, Google is personalizing your search. The neighborhood—even the block—that you’re logging in from is available to Google, and it says a lot about who you are and what you’re interested in.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicted in 2006 that one day "Google would be able to answer questions such as “Which college should I go to?”
Reference: Eli Pariser. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin. 2011, p. 133.
In 2004, Oceana was running a campaign urging Royal Caribbean to stop dumping its raw sewage into the sea; as part of the campaign, it took out a Google ad that said “Help us protect the world’s oceans. Join the fight!” After two days, Google pulled the ads, citing “language advocating against the cruise line industry” that was in violation of their general guidelines about taste. Apparently, advertisers that implicated corporations in public issues weren’t welcome.
According to the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” He predicted that personalised news delivered on mobile devices would replace newspapers…
Reference: Eli Pariser. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin. 2011, p. 60.
And that that kind of news consumption will be very personal, very targeted. It will remember what you know. It will suggest things that you might want to know. It will have advertising. Right? And it will be as convenient and fun as reading a traditional newspaper or magazine.
Krishna Bharat, who led the team that developed Google News, argued that whilst journalists created the content, it was the job of others, technologists, to ensure that content was seen by the right people, “the best set of eyeballs for it”… “I think people care about what other people care about, what other people are interested in—most important, their social circle”. He hopes people won’t feel the need to visit newsites when they can find the news they are interested in collected together for them on Google’s personalised site.
© 2017 Sharon Beder