Has Personalization Gone Too Far?

Recently my oldest childhood friend asked me an interesting question about Google search results – “When you type in a request on Google, it gives you a list of possible websites you might be looking for. These change as you continue to type. Are the prompts they list the result of algorithms that are user specific or general (the same for everybody)? Would you and I get the same suggested websites if we each typed in identical requests on our own laptops or is it based on our Google search history or even our entire browser history?”

I responded – “Both the prompts they list, and the actual search results are user specific. You are correct – Google results are impacted by their algorithms which read the search and browser history.”

Of course, I kept going – “Google is really not an information retrieval tool – it is a sales and marketing tool. Saving your history gives them more push for selling things via their advertiser/partner network. The ads you see are also based on this record of your searches.”

Infographic by The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. IFLA is the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users.

While there has been some criticism regarding the impact of personalization and user specific results, it remains a primary driver of what every web user sees, not just in Google, but across the web. When confined to online shopping this may not be such a bad thing, but when expanded to searches on virtually any subject, the danger emerges.

Early information retrieval engines and library-oriented online databases would give each user, anywhere in the world, the exact same result. The results were based strictly on the search terms and strategy – using Boolean, proximity and field-based (i.e., title) queries.

The earliest examples of personalization were really user-specific convenience tools. These included the ability to save searches or set-up alerts which would let you know when new records entered the database which matched your search strategy. Certainly useful and still objective.

The online environment began to change when personalization of search results was introduced and became widespread. Writing in “Search Engine Watch” in November of 2005, industry analyst Chris Sherman, said “Google’s personalized search reorders search results based on your history of past searches, giving more weight to topics that interest you.”

Personalization of search results means you are not seeing the full range of opinion. Results are similar to what you have used before. This is potentially critical as it occurs in every query and precludes seeing information that would broaden your view by showing the full scope of available content.

Research, at its heart, is designed to expand and add depth to your knowledge on any topic. Just reinforcing your existing point of view is counterproductive to this goal.

FactCheck.org is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.”

The original information intermediaries, librarians, have always known that different types of sources contain distinctive content. For example, news stories have a different emphasis than academic research. Rumors or gossip are far less authoritative than peer-reviewed journal articles.

The body of knowledge (BOK) for any subject allows for range of opinion on a topic, but it is identified in context. All BOKs encompass varying points of view and include things like theories, forecasts, and established facts. BOKs also identify bias as part of the factors that influence the presentation of the information.

Use Media Bias/Fact Check to determine the most credible media sources.

It can be argued that virtually all published sources have some kind of bias. However, often the information from publications does not reveal their tendencies, leaving the reader in the dark.

To combat this libraries and journalism professionals have been publishing media bias evaluation tools. Many of these services are exceptionally useful.

Two examples of these assessment resources include the “Media Bias Chart” by ad fontes media and the “Media Bias/Fact Check” website.

ad fontes media also offers an interactive version of their “Media Bias Chart.

ad fontes media “…rate[s] the news for bias and reliability using a rigorous methodology and a politically balanced team of analysts. Our focus is on analyzing the news content of articles and shows.”

The Media Bias/Fact Check homepage says – “We are the most comprehensive media bias resource on the internet. There are currently 3500+ media sources listed in our database and growing every day. Don’t be fooled by Fake News sources.”

These resources would be more effective if they were immediately available in a user-friendly way at the point of need, that is within the search results.

In a confusing time when information is amplified and accelerated by the connectivity of the internet, it is critical to use the tools that allow one to determine what is the best information on any topic. It would be particularly useful if popular internet sites would integrate these evaluation mechanisms into their feeds or search results. The ethics of being an information intermediary demand it.

9 thoughts on “Has Personalization Gone Too Far?

  1. Thanks for the interesting article on personalization.
    I don’t know if this is relevant to the subject at hand, but Stephen Jay Gould, the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, never relied on someone else’s interpretation of research and findings on any topic he might have been researching. He always went right to the original source written by the person who conducted the research and examined their original experiments and methodology. It didn’t matter what language it was written in or how long ago it was written.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely relevant. One of the many great things about a BOK is the embedded bibliography which enables a new researcher to track back to the earliest and seminal publications that helped create and define that body of knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. SJG was even more than those descriptors Larry mentions. He was also a baseball historian, as evidenced by his inclusion in Ken Burns’s excellent documentary, “Baseball”, in the ‘90’s. He was brilliant academic and had a healthy interest in multiple disciplines.
      I’ve always been a huge fan of Carl Sagan, and SJG was the closest avatar of that icon that I can name. Sadly, both gone far too young.

      Like

  2. Thanks George! Since I just watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix for a second time, I have really been bothered to watch how information is disseminated via Facebook and others. They make their money based on algorithms. We all know this but I am tired watching it; it’s outta control, especially with politics. You and I may care about fact checking but many users just google away.)))). I want the old Dialog days back. We searched for information by choice and yes, we paid for it. I would love to SUBCRIBE to information sources where I would be able to tailor what I want to see. It’s a simple concept and I wish Facebook would rework their entire system, throw politics off, and offer choices at a small cost. No more likes and angry emojis please. No more fake news. Lately, I have been subscribing to specific information sources and have been enjoying myself so much more. I am way less angry, I’m feeling fulfilled, and I am learning. Never stop learning! And I can’t wait for libraries to have a comeback! If people grow weary of watching our democracy take a hit (fake news, etc) then they may help redesign how we share info.
    If people want to socialize online, then what? That’s another topic.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Terrific article, George! I recall that in my librarian training in days of yore (when DIALOG only had 2 databases!), we were taught to always verify facts, theories, etc. in 3 sources independently.

    This is so informative and well-written; I encourage you to also publish it on Medium where it might be seen more broadly.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I was just getting ready to do a share of an article on search evolution when I received your post, George. So terribly relevant. As Vaidhyanathan wrote years ago, we are not Google’s customers, we are its product. Marcia Bates speaks of the same, continuing her role as visionary, “The goal is no longer to make search results more valuable, the search industry is about making as much money as possible from people’s data” (cited in article linked here). I agree that your post should be shared widely! Here’s the article mentioned, just published: https://doi.org/10.1177/0961000620980827

    Liked by 2 people

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