Google and Personalized Results

June 15, 2011

When I ask a person to run a query, people tell me they get results different from mine. The reason is that free Web search systems and some enterprise search systems personalize results. The notion of personalization has been around since Sagemaker. Remember that service which was built on Microsoft technology and then quietly disappeared years ago. (I wrote about the service in March 2008 in “Search: The Wheel Keeps on a Turnin’”.) There were even earlier forms of personalization available in commercial systems from the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were called “SDIs” which is a shorthand for Selective Dissemination of Information. Today, the “alert” is a close cousin of these filters. “Filter bubble” is a clever metaphor for something that dates from the era of “Hello Goodbye” and “I Heard It through the Grape Vine.”

The idea is that a user or system administrator sets up a standing query or series of terms. When new content arrives, matches are forwarded to the user or to a special file. The original “dollar a day” Desktop Data filled in boxes with filtered alerts, but who wants to revisit the history of search when today 20 somethings cheerfully reinvent the wheel between Foosball games and Facebook time?

Now personalization is rampant and it will become even more prevalent. Depending on one’s point of view, personalization is a great innovation or it is the bane of an informed professional.

How does one get around Google’s personalization functions? Most people don’t even know that the search results Google displays are filtering hits, predicting what a person wants and then subjecting those guesses to what is displayed to the user as “information.”

For the time being, you can sidestep Google’s personalization by running queries on this url:

If it goes dark, let me know via the comments section. We will have to hunt for another work around. Beyond Search contributor Cynthia Murrell found a useful write up about this service. She said in an email to me:

Search Engine Journal explains “How to Get Standardized Search Results.” For those in the SEO field, it used to be easy to measure a site’s ranking— perform a search, and there you go. However, the customization factors that Google has added complicate the issue. Results will be different for each searcher, depending on search history ( cookies) and the region one is searching from. You can go through the tedious process of deleting the cookies, but what to do about the assignation of a data center based on your location? Writer Nick Oba has the solution: exploit a feature Google created to accommodate mobile phone queries.

Google released a nifty little app called Google Mobilizer. This strips bells and whistles away from web pages, making them easily viewable on mobile phones . . . . You can also view websites from your desktop browser using Google Mobilizer. Google Mobilizer is, in effect, a proxy which also happens to strip out irrelevant frills.  We use Google Mobilizer to view search results on Google Search. The results . . . are from the most authoritative data center there is. These are the same results you would get when searching from the Googleplex, not logged in, and with cookies freshly deleted.

There you have it—the solution to measuring clients’ standardized rankings. At least until the next wrinkles are introduced.

A happy quack to Ms. Murrell for this added color. Imagine the potential of shaping results for the purpose of disinformation, advertising, or affecting how a particular entity is presented to a researcher, journalist, college student, or corporate president.

Nah, this would never happen. Bears in Kentucky eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken too.

Stephen E Arnold, June 15, 2011

For more about search, check out The New Landscape of Enterprise Search, now available from in Oslo, Norway.


2 Responses to “Google and Personalized Results”

  1. Kimberlee Morrison on June 24th, 2011 10:37 pm

    I’m in the camp that says the personalization is a bane in the information worker’s existence. Maybe this is just a sign that we still need libraries and academic databases, because that’s still the place to go if you want to find academic information.

  2. Latent Semantic Indexing: Just What Madison Avenue Needs : Beyond Search on June 29th, 2011 12:34 am

    […] happens if the Latent Semantic interpretation is incorrect? It can’t guess correctly every time. Check up on search engines’ interpretation of your site’s text to be sure you appear where you think you […]

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