Q: I heard that Google just made a big change and it’s generating controversy. What’s going on?
Google’s key feature has always been simplicity: a clean, uncluttered search interface that returns the most relevant webpages for any query. The search giant would weigh a variety of factors to measure a page’s authority, most importantly its inbound links, and rank the list of results accordingly. But recently, Google’s quest to increase personalization and add social features may be undermining its core premise.
Last week Google unveiled Search Plus Your World, which adds some new things to its results pages, including Google+ photos and posts from your connections. It also makes it easier to connect with people and pages that are related to your topics and interests. Google says that “search is simply better with your world in it,” and although traditional search is great for sifting through the billions of public webpages out there, “clearly, that isn’t enough. You should also be able to find … the people you know and things they’ve shared with you, as well as the people you don’t know but might want to… all from one search box.”
Critics aren’t quite as impressed, and claim that this update represents antitrust and privacy violations, as well as a furthering of disturbing filtering trends.
First, Google has been accused of shamelessly pushing its fledgling social network Google+ with this update. Intended to divert attention away from the wildly popular Facebook and Twitter, the new social results showcase Google+ profiles and pages that the searcher may want to connect with. As demonstrated by Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, these suggestions occur even when you are logged out of your Google account. Twitter and Facebook profiles are buried near the bottom or not even included on the first page.
In many cases, a celebrity’s Google+ page is favored even when his or her Twitter or Facebook page is much more active. A Google search for “facebook,” for example, suggests Mark Zuckerberg’s Google+ profile, even though he has never posted a single update. Examples like this have prompted many to accuse Google of favoring its own services instead of displaying the most relevant, which it purports to be its core value.
This type of favoritism and the shutting out of competitors naturally leads to antitrust concerns, and the FTC is planning to investigate this latest update.
Another complaint relates to the privacy of Google+ users. Content they have posted, including updates, video and photos, will now show up in other users’ open web searches. Although it won’t start showing this personal stuff to the general public, it does force users to be much more vigilant about their sharing settings, and still might put much more attention on unflattering content. There is no way to opt out of having your info included in others’ Google searches.
Finally, Search Plus Your World adds to the growing concern over the end of objective search. Google’s traditional search was algorithmic and mathematical; it returned the same top results for everyone. But now your search results vary according to your search history and your activity on social networks. When results are personalized and filtered, they tend to leave out crucial opposing viewpoints. For politically sensitive issues, for example, this filtering can cause citizens to become further entrenched in their current beliefs without presenting the other side. In an era of mass protests and radically different visions for society, this search bubble will only drag us even further apart. (For more on this, see DuckDuckGo’s DontBubble.us.)
Of course, this is a complicated issue. With evolving algorithms and the ability to tap into our frinends’ activity, search engines are getting very good at finding things we will like. And should it be the obligation of Google, a big corporation, to give people what they ought to want rather than what they actually want?
Either way, Google does need to tap into the social world to stay on top of the game. The big question right now is whether they are giving their competitors a fair shot.
Andrew Walsh is the owner and editor of Social Web Q and A. He is a freelance writer, academic librarian and web entrepreneur. Check out his book Savvy for the Social Web.