You may be under the impression that when you search for something on Google the results you see are the same as anyone else that performs that search. This isn’t the case, and hasn’t been for a long time.
In 2009 Google went full steam ahead with personalized search. The idea was to look through your internet history, your Gmail and all the rest of your Google products and look for signals that would enable Google to tailor a search results to exactly what you are looking for.
As well as looking through your history, Google has always wanted to look at your social network to make your search results more relevant. The only problem with that is it doesn’t own any social network data – a social network like Facebook is a ‘walled garden’ that Google can only peek in from the outside.
The arrival of Google+ allows Google free-rein over your social data and will herald the age of a new buzzword – social search. Social search is the process whereby your social network (or social graph) affects the results of a Google search. By looking at the content that has been created or shared by people in my social graph, the results I get from a Google search will be more personalized than ever before.
I’ve already seen this in action. After searching Google for ‘SOPA’ (the Stop Online Piracy Act) I found myself reading from a website that I had never heard of. I traced how I ended up on this particular page and it turns out that someone I have in my Google Circle network was a writer for this website and had +1’ed the article.
This is great, right? Google search results will become more relevant, based upon people like me and less likely to be manipulated by dirty SEO tactics. Some people have even gone so far as to call this a ‘Socratic Revolution’ – suggesting that the era of personalized search is akin to the philosopher Socrates placing man at the center of the intellectual universe.
There is, however, a dark side to personalized search that has been recognized in a book called ‘The Filter Bubble’ by Eli Pariser. The problem, he argues, is that this personalized ecosystem of knowledge acts as a mirror that reinforces what we believe without allowing the possibility of our views being challenged. Each new layer of personalization strengthens the walls of our own bubble – satisfying us with the information we want to see instead of offering new ideas. Or as he puts it, we are being given ‘too much candy, and not enough carrots.’
Whilst the Filter Bubble emphasizes our uniqueness, it acts as a centrifugal force – it pulls us apart from one another. With enough personalization the front page of Google News will be different for everyone, removing the kind of shared experience we used to have with a newspaper. Also, the Filter Bubble is invisible – we don’t know the maths behind how these algorithms define us. And with the increasing omnipotence of Google – it is difficult to not be a part of it.
So the arrival of Google+ social search marks a new era of ‘invisible autopropaganda’ that will continue ‘indoctrinating us with our own ideas’. What it will also mark is the start of a new form of marketing and campaigning – especially in the run-up to the 2012 US election. If I tap ‘Healthcare’ into Google I will be presented with the healthcare articles that my network has shared. Both the Democrats and the Republicans will have to fight to ensure that they have the right people inside the voters Google Circles.
Whilst we may still be at the dawn of social search – the correct techniques in this area could eventually make or break a campaign. Could 2012 be the year that Obama leverages Google+ to win the election?