Nothing is forever. I’ve recently made a change I want to share. We all use search engines, mostly without much thought. We type something in, look through the results, and click on a promising link or three. Most of us have been using the same search engine for years, and it’s probably Google. We’re used to it, and it seems to do a pretty good job. Why change? Sometimes change is good.
No, I haven’t stopped using the internet, nor quit using search engines — I’ve just realized that Google is no longer the Good Thing and Good Netizen that it once was. I’m not sure if their motto is still “Don’t be evil” but if it is they need to change it to better reflect reality.
Learning that they will now be keeping a permanent and uniquely identifiable record of all activities (linked across all Google properties, too) took me aback. Not just what I search for, but which results I actually click on. I’m not comfortable with them amassing all that data, and not comfortable with the thought of what could happen to it. Even if they claim that it is only for their own use, who knows what might change down the road and who they might sell it to. Furthermore, if I should ever become a target of law enforcement or government, I doubt Google would hesitate for even a second before turning my records over to authorities.
Same Search, Different Results
Even if you don’t think you have anything to hide (and I’ll even spare you the “slippery slope” speech just this once), there’s another problem with Google and how it uses the data it collects about you. If you and I were to simultaneously type the same search string into Google, we’d both get the same results, ranked in the same order, wouldn’t we? One might think so, but one would be wrong. Google tailors the results to the individual user, based on history of his or her prior searches and click-throughs. Creepy, huh? You aren’t getting the best results, but rather the results Google thinks you’d want.
Time to find a new search engine. Yahoo? They’re OK as an email provider and news aggregator, but I wouldn’t trust them with search. Bing? Even if I could stop wincing at the the name long enough to actually use it, why bother – it’s been proven to be repackaged Google results, despite their denials. Then I found this:
Enter DuckDuckGo – a search engine that doesn’t track me and doesn’t filter my search results. It’s actually pretty cool, too. Not just a front-end that adds a layer of privacy, but a real search engine with some pretty cool features. And if you like to get involved, you can even join the community or work on development.
Call Me Google Free
I’ve successfully managed to deGoogle my browser, removing all references to Google from its various nooks and crannies, and adding DDG where appropriate and useful. While I don’t expect many of you will jump off the Google bandwagon just on my say-so, I really think you should at the very least read this and this to get an idea of what Google really does, and then make your own decision.
Comments Are Open
What do you think? Are search engine tracking and the “filter bubble” real problems? Or do you think I’m just being paranoid? After reading the facts, do you think you’ll change your search habits?
Yahoo! search has been Bing powered for almost two years now. When it comes to searching, (and a little html) a custom search form works best. It allows you to choose which search engine to use. If you are worried about your data and online anonymity, take a look into the tor project.
Yes, Tor is the way to go for real privacy — thanks for suggesting it. In fact, I think DDG operates a Tor exit.
There’s a deeper underlying question here, and it’s basically along the lines of “how do you define ‘best’ when it comes to search results?”
When Google knows that my IP address is in southern Wisconsin, and I search for “Best Buy”, it would make the most sense for Google to return phone numbers for Best Buy stores near my location.
Or we could take a more common example. If I search for “NCIS” on Google, Google should probably assume I’m looking for the TV show – not the military agency. The TV show is far more relevant for most people.
But if my searches over the last month have had to do with the Navy and/or Marine Corps, the odds are the logic above is exactly the opposite of what they should do. They should return the military agency, and not the TV show.
To the extent that Google handles those situations appropriately, you could argue that it’s returning the “best results” in each scenario. The results are exactly what we’re looking for, and therefore we’re happier with them.
The logical extension of that, however, is that the “filter bubble” amounts to a case of technologically-assisted confirmation bias. If we don’t ever want to hear anything bad about our favorite political candidate, Google will happily sanitize our news so that we don’t. If we don’t want to know that we’re eating unhealthy food, Google won’t show us that anymore.
We know what we want. We effectively tell Google what we want. Then Google gives it to us. As long as everybody knows that’s how it works, there’s not really a problem (other than potential privacy issues – that’s a whole separate matter).
But if we’re relying on Google to give us the broad spectrum of information, from which we’ll derive our opinions, then we’ve got a colossal problem.
Just my $0.02.
That’s a good point, Robert. Sometimes the personalization of results can be helpful. Of course, if I’m looking for (to use your example) Best Buy in Wisconsin, I know to search for “Best Buy WI” (even if it is three extra characters). I also know to search for “NCIS TV” or “NCIS agency” depending on my interest. Of course, I’ve always been pretty good at coaxing my desired results from search engines, somehow knowing just how to word the query. Of course Google now messes with even that. Where it used to suggest “Did you mean…” but still give the results to MY string when it thought I misspelled or thought it knew better than I what I wanted, now it performs the “corrected” search instead, offering to do my instead if I still want to. Which wastes my time and their resources. Perhaps I’m in the minority, and most people appreciate a search engine that anticipates the querent’s needs and makes assumptions. Maybe if they were up front about exactly what they do (and why) and offered an option to turn all of that stuff off (or better yet, make the default behavior a basic, non-“enhanced” search) I’d be less irritated.
I think your last two paragraphs make an excellent point – as long as everyone knows how it works, it isn’t that bad, but if people rely too heavily on Google, it’s a problem. I think they could do a better job at educating the average user, making the defaults to offer the least meddling and most privacy, and offering easy to find and use controls for privacy and filtering.
As far as Google and Do No Evil go, here’s an interesting article in the New York Times: Google Is Faulted for Impeding U.S. Inquiry on Data Collection
And here’s yet another story: Unanswered Questions in F.C.C.’s Google Case
Thanks Mike. Today is the first I’ve heard of DuckDuckGo and will give it a try.
Awesome post, I was reading one of your comments on Living a minimalist life. First article I come across and it’s a home run. Back last year it was SOPA, that got my interested in privacy. Now the house has passes Cispa. Google this march quickly made it apparent that you would be using one user name to login to all it’s services. I really don’t like that. I have been using DDG for about two months, it’s a good search engine. I occasionally have to use Yahoo. Yahoo isn’t any better. They hold onto your search queries for up to 18 months I believe. Regardless, canceled Facebook, and recently canceled G-mail. E-mail isn’t private. Try looking into services such as Hush mail. Still won’t keep you from the Government, but at least you can encrypt your messages, and not have to deal with ads being promoted to you from key words on Gmail.
Heya , just tripped over your site ( a long way from “Nomadicista ” ), and I think I’m gonna bookmark you ( congratulations and/or commiserations, whatever ).
On the subject of search engines , Google had pissed me of sufficiently enough to make me look around , and I find that no search engine is good at everything, so I now take a different tack and now have something like 10 different ones , each one particularly good at some aspect the others are slack in. In addition I keep a proxy and a anonymizer on tap ( since the Tor network is subsidized and used by the Nsa ( and we know how good THEIR ethics are …..)).
Looking forward to reading more of your site.