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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Personalised search in Google - the Filter Bubble

When I was a very young I remember talking about a TV programme on that night (it was probably Doctor Who) and a friend said "Will that be on my TV as well?" I had to explain that what was on my TVs was on all TVs and we would be watching the same thing at the same time. Of course things are very different now, but even today we still have our shared must see moments like the Apprentice (if I don't watch it when broadcast I have to hide from the metro, facebook and all work chit-chat till I see it).

The reason I thought of this is that you might imagine things were the same if you and a friend searched for exactly the same thing on Google. But I recently did a search on the term "dance" and found my results very different to the ones our web manager Mark got. Of course search results we assume will vary by country, or even by region but it really does seem that personalised search for all of us is now here. Last weekend there was a large piece in the Observer on this very topic which makes interesting reading. It certainly messes with your SEO strategy if searches are primarily based on an individuals previous activity. What does this mean? Well I suppose Google would say it makes your search more targeted so you get what you want but is that always a good thing? Or does it just reinforce your positive or negative opinions by never exposing you to anything new or challenging? Cynics would say it encourages businesses to spend money on Adwords to ensure your message gets across. Some people would say it just balances out the work done by companies trying to force their own messages on us. I mention all this because in the arts our aim (I hope) is always to reach new people and widen our audience. This was something the web offered that was very exciting. By narrowing down what we see to what we already think and like, Google is perhaps only giving us the illusion of access to information.

Eli Pariser has written a book on this very subject that comes out on 23 June and follows on from a powerful TED lecture he gave. His term for it is a Filter Bubble and it is an interesting concept with big implications for how we use the web to find information. The impact it has on how we will access news in the future is immense. Interestingly, Google may say this all makes their search engine more efficient and faster but at best it may make it a duller place to spend time, offering you more and more of the same. At worst it may limit how you think about the world.

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