Eli Pariser, founder and now, board member of Public Policy group, Move on, has written an insightful book on the internet, the new era of personalisation and the various dark areas lurking under the seemingly harmless free world of Search and Social Media.
The book, called ‘The Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you’ also contains important information and opinion about how Search Engines could be invading user privacy and perpetrating other potential infringements, like mapping your purchasing patterns to hard sell stuff you don’t need or hide information that the Search Engine ‘thinks’ you don’t need to see. Pariser calls this, ‘The Filter Bubble’ and debates its pros and cons in the book.
It is widely known and acknowledged today by Search Engines Google and Yahoo, and related companies and competitors like Twitter and Facebook, among other sites offering similar services, that personalisation leads to enhanced marketing capabilities.
These companies are all intensely chasing that personalisation Oracle, where a user’s mere thought will lead to a bunch of relevant results. Sometime back, Facebook had vehemently opposed Google’s Analytical approach to search, however, now, the Company is aggressively following a similar strategy.
Facebook users share a lot about themselves, in terms of the groups they belong to and the status updates they like and so on. A highly personalised service that groups a users Likes and offers results might be OK, as far as certain searches are concerned, like restaurant or shopping suggestions.
But, what happens if users are not allowed to see certain points of view because of their so-called personal preferences, as arrived at by the site? Eli Pariser warns about this form of excessive personalisation of search, and how it will impact future user experience.
Google has been a pioneer in offering personalised search results so far. Taking Google’s personalised search as an example, Eli explains, that Google uses about 57 signals to personalise search results of its users.
And according to Eli, these results continue to be personalised even after we have logged out. Experts have known for some time now that some factors like the computers and the browsers used, as well as user location, are taken into account to personalise search results.
Strangely, the rest of the factors are undisclosed and only educated guesses have been taken so far. Among the many bloggers and speculators who have tried to list out Google’s personalisation factors is Rene Pickhardt, a German blogger and Webscience researcher, who opines that seemingly arbid factors like the time we spend on search results, frequency of clicking on ads, time allocated between search mediums – video, news, general, our age and even the user’s frequency of searching for himself are factors that Google takes into consideration to personalise our results.
According to lists like these, even if only some of them are accurate, and they must be, considering how increasingly ‘personalised’ our search results are, users are giving away a whole bunch of personal information, with or without realising it. Third Parties also have access to user information and Search Engines under the protection of the Disclaimer Clause are actively involved in promoting, what Eli has aptly described as, ‘The Filter Bubble’.
Eli Pariser’s book explains succinctly, what has long been known about Search Engine giants like Google, that while promising democratization of information and proclaiming a motto like, ‘Do No Evil’, they seem to have changed their tack. Users, especially after reading Eli’s book, will realise that this is not the case.
They have to turn into gatekeepers to protect themselves from invaders who might find a way to use all this information gathered by Search Giants. Users will have to find a way to turn off personalisation features, whether it’s Google or Facebook, or any other site offering highly personalised results.
However, Eli Pariser has overlooked certain aspects of the Filter Bubble, among them is the quest for innovation.
No doubt, Google started as a project with a foot in the world of academics. As has been increasingly portrayed in the media and books about these organisations, many of the Silicon Valley companies were not focused on profits in the beginning.
They pursued innovation and research. But with time, investor money and stock options, these companies had to turn a profit and they have no real reason to pursue innovation for innovation’s sake anymore – unlike a non-profit organisation like, say, the MIT, that receives external funds, and can continue to focus on research and innovation.
Research organisations work on a quid pro quo basis, where they don’t necessarily have to get a profit, where as, Search Engines and other related companies work on serious sales and revenue targets. Their aim is that everything they work on should in some way contribute to user experience, which in turn contributes to loyalty and profits, or straightforward profits. Markets do not incentivise innovation but they do compensate for innovation that leads to revenue.
Which is why, Search Engines and sites that haven’t been able to make profits on their services are dying a slow death, like Yahoo and AOL. In such a commercial, market-driven scenario, some experts have suggested that external funding for Search Engines to pursue research could go a long way in slowing down their intentional or unintentional efforts to trap their users in The Filter Bubble. A direction like this could mitigate all this negative talk and users and experts would be talking about innovation, creativity, out-of-the box thinking and so on.
Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble may not make one feel very favourably towards personalisation, however, making products and services more relevant has always helped the consumer for centuries. The problem, however, is that Search is a very different kind of ‘service’ and Search users have very different expectations from say visitors of a restaurant who might like their favourite dish just the way they have always had it.
Search Engines are only doing what businesses have done for ages for their consumer. Unfortunately, their sales are tied to relevance, while also puts them in an ethical spot. Relevance and personalisation is important, especially in cases, where users need that sort of support, say in case of disability or young users. As the technology of personalisation and the ‘filter bubble’ evolves, there will definitely be both good and bad views and actions associated with it. One can only wait and watch to see how far Search Engines will go in their quest for profit, and how long users will continue to be passive about the issue.
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