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Monday, June 20, 2011

The 'Search Bubble' And How It's Affecting Your Internet Usage

At the risk of sounding like a sidewalk preacher in a bad early 90's movie...PEOPLE YOU NEED TO WAKE UP YOU ARE LIVING IN A SEARCH BUBBLE!! Hopefully that got your attention (all caps usually does) so let's get into what this search bubble is and how you can avoid it.

It's a pretty simple concept really if you use the major search engines, Google, Bing, or Yahoo (Facebook does this too but their not a true search engine) you are being tracked on a number of levels. They make note of what operating system you use, your browser, and a few other key vectors including what you click on the most. That's not so unusual, most websites use cookies to track these fairly common things, it really isn't a big deal and doesn't truly invade your privacy or do any harm. Mostly all it does is provide an easy way for web developers to track what is going on in their sites and adjust accordingly. We can tell things such as if your coming from a cell phone, desktop, laptop or tablet and load scripts that allow us to format the pages for your particular device. It's pretty handy.
What does invade the hell out of your privacy as well as do what I consider some pretty nasty harm however is what those sites (Facebook and Google in particular) are doing with that information.

So what is it that they're doing exactly? The major search engines (and Facebook) take that data and then    use it to filter your search results. They pretty much tailor make the results by running them through algorithms that decide what gets loaded on your first page results. Pretty much like a mathematical gate-keeper. Most people on the web don't even know they're being filtered because they can't see any alternative.

So why is this a bad thing? For starters, it spits in the face of a neutral web where all sites and information is on the same level, accessible by everyone (who's government allows them) and delivered at the same speed. There have been a few times in the past where ISP's tried to make the web a pay per site thing like cable is. Where users would pay for certain sites and only get access to those. There have also been attempts by various interests to 'throttle' the internet making websites that pay a fee load faster than ones that don't. Luckily they've all failed in this endeavor, however is Google and the other search providers trying to do the same? Not exactly. What you have to remember here is that these sites are businesses and they are trying to make a profit first and foremost.
Most of the time this isn't such a horrible thing. Profit forces companies to make better products to draw in more users (most of the time at least) and usually means that we get some pretty sweet products, think about this. The iPad isn't so successful because it sucks, it's successful because it whomps the competition in many many ways. Other companies are going to have to make something better if they want to muscle in on Apple's profits. Being profit driven isn't always a bad thing.

However, in this case being profit driven isn't a good thing. It's the reason your search results are being targeted. What the major search engines are hoping to do is filter out results you might not click on so that they can get better click through rates (how many people click on an ad) and make more money off of selling ad space. If they can guarantee high CTR's than they can up the price on their search result ad  space. So what their doing is preventing users from viewing all the possible results in order to drive up ad prices, not cool in my opinion. Sure you might get more 'relevant' results but your missing out on a lot of other results that you might be interested in, not the least of which are alternative viewpoints.

I feel that it's important people know this and I have found a pretty good workaround. Check out this search engine I've been using it myself for a little while now and it's a pretty sweet search engine. It also doesn't track you in any way shape or form that I've been able to find. It might be a little hard at first to switch from your favorite search provider to the new one but it's well worth it if you don't want your results featured.

Here's a video that explains it pretty well:

So let me know what you think in the comments if you have a second, I'd really like to get other peoples opinions on this.

Do you think search engines should provide an opt-out option so that users have a choice? Would you rather not be opted-in at all, or do you like having your results filtered? (I can understand if you do some people might like that feature)

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