Many of us have known for a while that the search engines, and in particular Google, customise results. What you see on your screen will not necessarily be what someone else sees on theirs even with what appears to be an identical search. Location, browser, search history, your browsing behaviour and your social networks are just some of the factors that are used by Google to personalise your results. I recall sitting next to Marydee Ojala at a business information conference in the Czech Republic in 2008 and under discussion was a search visualisation tool. We both ran the same search – Czech coal production, I think it was – and from the maps that were generated on our screens it was obvious that we had completely different sets of results. Marydee had what we decided was an “unadulterated” set with pages that did include the keywords but were not exactly on topic, for example a report on a local football match sponsored by Czech Coal. In contrast, my results were mostly Czech coal production statistics and news on the energy sector in the region. I regularly research the European energy sector and the search engine underlying the visualisation tool used my search history to adjust the results accordingly.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and a request appeared on one of my discussion lists from Mary Ellen Bates for people to run a search on Israel in Google News and to send her a screen shot of what we saw. 37 people responded within 6 hours and the results are very interesting indeed. Full details are on Mary Ellen’s blog (Is Google really filtering my news? http://www.librarianoffortune.com/librarian_of_fortune/2011/09/is-google-really-filtering-my-news.html) but here are a few highlights:
- One story appeared in more than 90% of the search results, another appeared in 70% …. Of the remaining 14 stories, none were seen by more than 30% of the searchers, and most were seen by less than 15% of the searchers
- More than a quarter of the stories showed up in only one searcher’s search results
- Almost one in five searchers saw a story that no one else saw
- Only 12% of searchers saw the same three stories in the same order
The 6 hour spread of the responses may account for some of the differences. Google is constantly picking up stories and changing the grouping and ranking of the articles. Nonetheless, the results still show that you need to use your advanced search skills and look at more than the top headlines for the full picture. To quote Mary Ellen: “Bottom line: Holy moley, Google does filter the news. You really need to go beyond the first few search results if you want to get a relatively well-rounded view of the news.”