Tag Archives: personalisation

Oi, Google! NO!!

I’ve been seeing what looks like a new annoying Google search “feature” for a few weeks. I have been trying to ignore it in the hope that it would go away but it hasn’t. The problem is that Google has started giving me long lists of YouTube videos for some of my queries, even though I am in web search. For example a search on comfrey compost tea came up with about a dozen videos before giving me web pages with text describing the benefits of comfrey compost, which was what I wanted. In addition, in the menus on the left hand side of the screen Google offered me options to refine my video search by duration. But, Dear Google, I did NOT want videos at all!

Google search for comfrey compost tea

It did not matter whether or not I was signed in to my Google account. The videos were still given priority. I wondered if this was just an issue with Chrome so I switched to Firefox. The list of videos disappeared and was replaced by just one entry for YouTube at the top.

Comfrey Compost Tea in Firefox and Incognito

This gave me a clue as to what might be going on. I use Chrome for most of my “personalised” search. I generally stay logged in to my account, have enabled web search history and do not clear out the search cookies. In contrast I use Firefox for “de-personalised” search. I stay logged out of Google and social networks, and cookies and history are cleared after each session. I usually watch permaculture and gardening videos in Chrome, which probably explains why YouTube was taking pride of place in many of my search results. To test the theory I paused and deleted my web search history, and cleared cookies and browsing data. I then signed out of Google, cleared cookies again and re-ran the search. The blasted videos were still there.

What if I ran the search in a Chrome incognito window? The results were identical to those when using Firefox. Back to a normal Chrome window and the videos returned. I then checked that my web history was off and deleted. It wasn’t and it steadfastly refused to go away. Then the penny dropped. All my Chrome data – bookmarks, history etc – are synced to my Google account so no matter how often I try and delete the stuff locally it will all come back down again from my account. I disconnected my Google account under Chrome’s settings and, “Hey presto”, no more videos. I reconnected and they were back. It appears that if you are using Chrome and have synced it with your Google account you will get personalised results, even if you are signed out of your account.

So, if you are a Chrome user you may think that you have switched off personalisation by logging out of your account but that may not be the case. If you are conducting serious research it is always worth running your searches in an Incognito window, using a different browser or a completely different search engine like DuckDuckGo (http://duckduckgo.com/).

Postscript: I forgot to mention that I also tried Verbatim, but to no avail. Verbatim makes sure that all your terms are in the pages/documents exactly as you have typed them in but that still gives Google plenty of leeway in presenting those results. Google still bombarded me videos although some were different from my original search.

Workshop and presentation given at the 11th SAOIM June 5th-8th

The slides for the workshop and presentation I gave at the 11th Southern African Online Information Meeting are now up on authorSTREAM and Slideshare.

Personalisation of search: take back control




Personalisation of search: take back control – ADDENDUM

Answers to some of the questions that arose during the workshop




The future of search: localisation, personalisation and socialisation



Personalised vs non-personalised search – a word cloud comparison

My talk at the recent INFORUM 2012 conference held in Prague was about the issue of personalisation and the impact of our social network activities on search results. I believe that personalisation, and in particular contributions from our social and professional networks and even Google+, can present us with an alternative view of a topic or person that can be an important part of our analysis of a situation. I always have two different browsers open. One is not logged in to any account of any sort, has all cookies cleared at the end of each research session, and has search history disabled. The other is permanently logged in to a Google+ enabled account, social and professional accounts, and has web history enabled. This enables me to quickly switch between two very different environments to give me very different results when I am conducting research on Google or even Bing. Demonstrating this at a workshop or conference can be difficult, though, because postings and comments from the social elements of the search results may have been restricted to friends or limited circles.

For the INFORUM 2012 conference I decided to generate word clouds for personalised and non-personalised results for a Google.co.uk search on the single word Prague. The titles and up to the first 250 words of the top 20 results for the searches were scraped into a document from which the clouds were generated. In the graphic below, which has been taken from my presentation, the first word cloud represents a search that is as non-personalised as I could make it and the second has been personalised by several weeks of research on what to do and see in Prague. There are no prizes for guessing what we were interested in visiting!

Word cloud

Search gets personal and social

My INFORUM 2012 presentation on “Search gets personal and social” is available on authorSTREAM at http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/karenblakeman-1431533-search-gets-personal-and-social/

It is also available temporarily at http://www.rba.co.uk/as/

A paper is also available on the INFORUM web site at http://www.inforum.cz/en/proceedings. It covers much of what I said but bear in mind it was written a few weeks beforehand and the presentation was updated with new developments the night before I gave the talk.

Google personalisation: web history isn’t the only problem

On March 1st a major change to how Google uses your search and personal information will be implemented. Under the innocent sounding title “Updating our privacy policies and terms of service” (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2012/01/updating-our-privacy-policies-and-terms.html) Google announced in January that it is consolidating more than 60 privacy policies into a single main Privacy Policy. (You can preview the new policy at http://www.google.com/policies/privacy/preview/). Until now there have been separate Terms and Conditions and policies for each Google product (YouTube, Gmail, Reader etc). From March 1st there will be just one. In principle this is a good thing and makes sense, but Google have used this to sneak in changes in how it uses your search behaviour to personalise results.

Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.

In the past, data such as your web history was kept separate from other Google products. It will now be combined with information that Google has gleaned from its other services, for example YouTube, and your results personalised accordingly. A lot has been made of deleting and disabling the web history associated with your account. It’s simple enough to do by logging in to your account and going to http://www.google.com/history/. From here you can delete entries and disable your web search history altogether.

You may, though, prefer to keep your web history. Several groups I have talked to over the last couple of months share a Google account for the library or their subject team and use it to keep track of searches and sites they have visited. One example they gave me involved a student who came back to them asking for another copy of the paper that they had given him three weeks previously. He had lost it, forgotten who the authors were, could barely remember the title and definitely could not recall the journal! Trying to repeat the search was no good; it was difficult enough attempting to recreate the search string and in any case Google had made so many changes to web search that the results would have looked totally different anyway. By using the search history the librarians managed to locate not only the search but also the document they had retrieved for the student.

Unfortunately the Web History is not the only piece of information that Google uses when personalising results. To get an idea of what it could be using take a look at your Google account dashboard by going to http://www.google.com/dashboard/. Now is the time to do a spot of spring cleaning and remove any “stuff” you no longer use or need. It won’t be possible to remove everything but you may be surprised at how much clutter there is in your account. I have told Google a lot about myself including links to other services and networks that I use. Being self employed it is one way of promoting and advertising what I do but now Google’s attempt at personalisation has become increasingly annoying. Two weeks ago I went into YouTube. I have told Google that I live in Reading in the UK and YouTube automatically presented me with videos from ReadingBerkshireUK (note that I do NOT subscribe to this channel).

The videos about the redevelopment of Reading Station and local transport are relevant but I was not tempted to view any of them – I see enough of it first hand every day. As for Reading Football Club I regret to say that I have no interest in football whatsoever. When I visited YouTube this morning it had given up trying to persuade me to click on Reading videos and decided to push content that had been shared by members of my Google+ circles. Most of it was irrelevant.

We can expect to see a lot more of this type of intrusion in the future as Google is determined to ram Google+ down our throats (see And the next Google killer is….Google! http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2012/01/30/and-the-next-google-killer-is-google/). There are even reports that people setting up a new account for YouTube, Gmail, or any other Google product are being forced to set up a Google+ account. (Google Now Forcing All New Users To Create Google+ Enabled Accounts http://marketingland.com/google-now-forcing-all-new-users-to-create-google-enabled-accounts-3912). If you do not want this cross-fertilisation to occur then sign out of your account before searching. But have you noticed how insistent Google is that you have an account and that you are signed in? The new Google home page has removed the cog wheel that gave access to Advanced Search and Language tools from the top right hand corner of the screen. Instead there is now a prominent button exhorting you to “Sign in”.

Once you have carried out a search the cog wheel comes back but it is underneath the persistent Sign in link.

If you are a heavy user of Google services it can be a nuisance having to sign out each time you want to conduct a search. I now have two browsers open on my desktop: one signed out for searching, the other for Google+, Gmail, Blogger etc. Ironically, an alternative is to install Chrome, which is Google’s own browser. This has an Incognito option that depersonalises your search and removes traces of your activity when you close it down. It will keep any bookmarks that you make and files that you save during the session.

In summary, to take back control of your search:

1. Review and prune what is in your Google account’s dashboard

2. Decide whether or not the web history is going to be useful to you. If it isn’t, delete and disable it.

3. Sign out of your account before searching, or use a separate “un-signed in” browser, or use Chrome Incognito

Bing becomes more like Google and personalises

So you thought you could escape filtering and personalisation of search results by fleeing Google and running into the arms of Bing? Afraid not. Bing has announced that it is rolling out a new personalisation feature called adaptive search. Details are on Bing’s blog Adapting Search to You (http://www.bing.com/community/site_blogs/b/search/archive/2011/09/14/adapting-search-to-you.aspx). According to Bing the “more you search, the more Bing can learn”.

The feature is being rolled out first in the US and is cookie based. The cookie and personalisation lasts for 28 days if you are not signed in to Bing and 18 months if you are. You can clear and turn off your search history at any time.

Bing seems to be trying to be more and more like Google all the time. I tried one of my test searches on Hewish mild and Bing did a Google on me by unilaterally deciding to include results for Jewish mild in my results. Placing a plus sign before Hewish did force an exact match but the related searches it offered me all involved Jewish – Jewish Chronicle, Jewish jokes, Jewish festivals etc. Yahoo does exactly the same, which is not surprising since it uses the Bing database and search algorithms.


Google can seriously damage your news

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.”