Google: The (Filter) Bubble Rises

In the interests of being helpful, search engines operate on the model of giving you more of what you want and less of what you don’t. They do this by building a profile of your online activity – your preferences, your beliefs and your values – and use this to deliver more relevant search results. The result has come to be known as a filter bubble.

The model makes a lot of sense in the context of online shopping. (Let’s not forget that most search engines are funded by advertisers, so it’s in their best interests to be great at finding products to buy.) The problem is, search engines apply this model to everything we search for on the web. If you are searching for a subject rather than a product, say, gun control or climate change as opposed to Manolo Blahniks, the search engine treats this just as if you were shopping. It refers to your profile and aims to please you only with things you agree with – things that fit into your worldview. Hence, the “bubble.”

It’s harder to pop than you think

At first glance, many people’s response is, “Then I’ll sign out of Google.” Nice try. Since 2009, Google, for one, has provided “Personalised Search for Everyone,” which means that even if you aren’t a Google account user, Google is building a profile on you in order to deliver biased results intended to be more relevant and helpful.

What you can do

Clear your cookies

Cookies are actually one of the main ways that search engines and other sites profile you. While most cookies are used to make your browsing experience more convenient, they also cross over into filtering –  and localizing – search results. Mozilla, the non-profit makers of Firefox, are building a cookie-blocking plug-in. Apple’s Safari browser already blocks third-party cookies.

Empty your history

A lot of Google’s search personalization is based on your browsing history. If you delete this, you can get fewer biased results.

Turn off those “helpful” browser features

Many browsers have things like URL spelling error correction or “prefetch” services that help make your browsing experience faster. Guess how they do that!

Try a different search engine

Probably the most effective option is to use a different search engine if you are searching for truly unbiased information. DuckDuckGo is a great option, they collect zero information about you so that all results are truly objective.