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.

Getting to Common Ground

During my tenure as a Client Services Manager for the IEEE I did presentations and training events all over the world. I traveled to many countries in Asia, South America, Europe, the United Kingdom and made frequent trips to the Middle East. I’ve been to Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. I gave a keynote speech at a technical conference in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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Do Not Close the San Carlos School Libraries!

My wife and I do not have any children, but we do have nieces and nephews with children of their own. We are big believers in education. My entire career was built on the education I received in the New York City Public Schools, then Queens College and finally San Jose State University (SJSU).

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Do You Believe In Science?

I’ve always been a science person. I remember reading Popular Mechanics and doing science projects when I was still in elementary school. When my neighbor received a really nice telescope as a Christmas gift, we were out in the freezing New York City weather trying to view the rings of Saturn. This was way before telescopes had GPS and finder devices, so it took considerable effort to find and focus the telescope on our target.

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PG&E Part III – Implement a Knowledge Based Culture

Many of the readers of this blog know I was employed by the “premium content” electronic publishing industry for almost forty years. In our positioning of products to our clients, we would often discuss the need for a knowledge-based culture. This was especially important with our corporate audience with the closing or absence of libraries.

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Your Information Environment

We are living in a time where millions believe they are well informed if they watch one broadcast network, take a peek at a social networking site, and maybe do a few web searches. Those who are knowledgeable in fact-based research skills are disturbed by the impact of this broad perception.

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Junior High Assignments Made Me Use the Library

In my post “Higher Truth and How to Get There” I talked about how to access and use quality information. In today’s world of manipulative and biased sources, how can one be confident they are getting the “best stuff?” The answer is simple: use the library!

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Toughest Teacher Paves Career Path

We’ve all had teachers like this. Fierce reputation. Toughest teacher in the school. Or, maybe later, a professor. “You’ll never get an A.” “Will try to intimidate you.” “Very demanding.” These or similar comments were often heard from fellow students.

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Museums, Picasso and my Best Grade Ever!

Having confidence in my ability to use the library led to many successes that enabled my education and career. Continuing with memories of Junior High School, one research paper sticks out in my mind. The seventh grade art teacher, Mrs. Scott, assigned us to do a report about a famous artist. For reasons I do not remember, I chose Pablo Picasso. After doing my usual background research in the library, it occurred to me to visit the Museum of Modern Art to see some of the famous Picasso pieces in-person.

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The Keys to Manhattan

When I first started Junior High School, my mother would not let me go to Manhattan. If I asked my mom – “the guys want to go to the City, can I go?” – the answer was always no. Growing up in Queens, there was nothing like the excitement of going to Manhattan. Even though I loved the bustle of “The City,” seeing the sites, the amazing buildings, people watching, going to Central Park, buying slices of pizza (then 25 cents!) or a hot dog, there was no way I could get around the edict of my Mom.

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