Tiffany B. Brown

Personalization versus the zeitgeist: thoughts on Google’s search quality

Anil’s round-up of three recent posts bashing Google’s search results sparked this entry. I present below two screen shots of a recent search I did for the keyword “lichtenstein.”

Personalized results
My results while logged-in.
Generalized results
My results after logging out and re-submitting the query.

The top image features my personalized search results for “lichtenstein” when logged in to my Gmail account. The bottom image features the Google-algorithmically determined zeitgeist, if you will, for the same term. That is what I see after logging out of my account.

I noticed this discrepancy while intending to search for Liechtenstein, that landlocked principality in the Alps. Seeing lots of results for “Roy Lichtenstein” — and not a Google prompt asking me whether I was perhaps looking for “Liechtenstein ” — confused the sh*t out of me. I mean, Google, why is your search engine suddenly incapable of knowing that I can’t spell Liechtenstein and choosing to provide crappy results instead?

Why? Because Google assumes it knows your context.

One day, I Googled Roy Lichtenstein using “roy lichtenstein.” A few weeks later, I was curious about Liechtenstein and what it would take to immigrate there. So I Googled it using “lichtenstein.” Google, it seems, assumed that I was searching for a resource previously found and prioritized Roy Lichtenstein results — items I had clicked on during a previous search.*

As an experiment, I logged out and re-ran the query. Bingo! My first result is for Liechtenstein.

Searching, finding, and learning what you need to know

Yes, people turn to Google to start their research, but many also use it as a form of web navigation. In the pre-Google days, you might have saved a URL in your browser window, or to a bookmarking service such as Yahoo! bookmarks or delicious. Now, you probably just re-run the query in Google and hope your browser history still shows that visited link in purple or that you recognize the page title.

But what if you are searching for the zeitgeist? What if you have, say, entered a common-seeming misspelling of a name and get results that were quite different from what you were expecting? What if you don’t want to find something you found before, or you aren’t looking for a reflection of your interests and social graph?

This, I think, is where Google starts to fall down, and could well be shooting its big toe. By assuming the wrong thing, Google is making its search results (appear) less relevant.

Long term, the other concern is this: if everyone’s results are personalized, how does and how should Google — as our leading organizer and indexer of web-based knowledge — compensate for the bias of our own selections?

* This is a re-run of a query that I actually tried weeks ago. The first time I logged-out and searched for “lichtenstein,” Google asked whether I meant “Liechtenstein.” Query spell check was not activated with subsequent searches. Perhaps Google realized that “lichtenstein” is a common-enough misspelling of Liechtenstein that it should prioritize the principality’s Wikipedia page in the results.

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