Are You in the Google Filter Bubble?

Category: Search-Engines

DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine, is once again spewing FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt – about Google Search. According to DDG’s latest “study,” Google is manipulating search results in undetectable ways based on its effectively omniscient knowledge of each user’s likes and dislikes, surfing and shopping habits, demographics, etc. But is that really happening? Read on for my analysis...

Are You Seeing Search Results No One Else Sees?

According to DuckDuckGo (DDG), Google even manipulates search results when you search while in “private” browsing mode (what Google calls “Incognito” mode), thereby thwarting your presumed intent to get unbiased search results that are not “personalized” by Google’s knowledge of you. (I think it likely that most Incognito searches have other motives, like concealing the fact that the user was searching for certain terms.)

The terrible result, says DDG, is that every Google Search user is trapped in a “filter bubble” that shows him mostly search results which reinforce his preconceptions and biases. Instead of fostering national unity by showing all of us the same search results, Google divides us, they claim, by showing each user search results that are significantly different from what others see.

The “study” that supports DDG’s claim is flawed in more ways than I can describe here. Just for starters, it included the search experiences of only 87 U.S. residents. (Yes, that's 87... not 870, 8700, or some other statistically significant sample.) Then it excluded the 11 mobile users, despite the fact that more than half of searches are conducted on mobile devices.

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt at DuckDuckGo

DDG’s sample was way too small and skewed hopelessly far from reality. Its results and conclusions cannot be taken seriously. But the folks at DDG strive nonetheless to be taken seriously, using colorful (yet incomprehensible) infographics and impressive (yet inscrutable) phrases like, “the Damerau-Levenshtein edit distance...” If you read the “study,” take it not with a grain of salt but with a liter of laughing gas.

Is Google deliberately manipulating search results to sway your thoughts and beliefs? A much more rigorous study involving over 4,500 undecided voters indicated that it is certainly possible for those who control search to control elections. But there is no hard evidence that anyone has deliberately done so.

Conspiracy theorists love this sort of FUD. There’s Fear that invisible powers are controlling minds and the outcomes of elections. There’s the Uncertainty of never being sure whether you are being manipulated. Finally, there is Doubt that the top 10 search results are the ones you really need to click on; “the Truth” may be buried on the tenth page of results.

Your Own Private Bubble

And yet, the “filter bubble” is real. Each of us does live in a world all his own. The thing is, it’s a world of our own creation; we build our own bubbles! Think back on your day; not just time spent googling but every waking moment. How many ads did you see or hear between TV, radio, billboards, the sides of cars and buses, store facades and shelves, etc.? You don’t know, because you filtered out all but one – maybe two, if they were well made and relevant to your immediate, ever-changing interests.

What’s the difference between search results that are “manipulated” and those that are “personalized?” The former word has malign connotations while the latter has benign ones. But the act of personalizing always involves manipulation in some sense.

Google responded to DDG’s study the same day it was published. Among the company’s rebuttals are:

“(W)e do not personalize search results based on demographic profiles nor create such profiles for use in Google Search...”

“Personalization doesn’t happen often & generally doesn’t dramatically change search results from one person to another.”

“Anyone who wants to test how lightly personalization is applied can easily check this themselves. Do a search in a fresh “Incognito” or similar private browsing window & you’ll have no account-based activity that is used. You can compare to a regular search…"

Some degree of personalization is theoretically possible even if the user is anonymous. It's part of the Web protocol that when you request a web page, your browser sends your IP address to that website. That's necessary in order for the data to be sent back to you. In many cases, your IP address is a good indicator of your general geographic location. It could reveal that you live in a certain county or town, but NOT your actual street address. (Try it yourself. Use IPChicken to get your IP address, then plug it into this Geo-IP lookup tool.)

So that MIGHT translate into the possibility that the searcher is a “rich conservative” or “low income urban liberal.” Google says they don't tailor search results based on demographic profiles, but that doesn't mean they don't do so based on geographic information. When, for example, I search for "injury lawyers" I get several listings from attorneys in my area. To me, that's a good thing. (Try the same search with DuckDuckGo, and you'll see the difference.)

I conclude that search engines are powerful tools that definitely COULD sway millions of minds. And I'm not knocking DuckDuckGo. Their search engine is powered by Microsoft Bing, Yahoo (owned by Verizon), Wikipedia, Yelp, and others. If you want the "truth" as provided by those sources, without the personalization, then more power to you.

But until I see a “smoking gun” I am going to assume no one’s swaying my mind except me. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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This article was posted by on 7 Dec 2018


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Most recent comments on "Are You in the Google Filter Bubble?"

(See all 26 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Allan
07 Dec 2018

"no one's swaying my mind but me."
Interesting that you would think so.
It's amazing to find so many who think ads are mainly benign and harmless annoyances.
If they weren't effective, why would businesses invest billions on ads?
Those 'harmless' ads have a way of penetrating our subconscious in subtle but effective ways.

Look at the multitude of fast food outlets, and the crowds they attract, across the country...that's the power of advertising.


Posted by:

David S
07 Dec 2018

"no one's swaying my mind but me."
Nope, no one except whoever's buying me Snickers.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For the record, it's been quite a while since I enjoyed a Snickers bar! :-)


Posted by:

Greg
07 Dec 2018

I use a VPN ( Nord )to avoid such issues. However, there are still a couple of "gotchas".
1- some sites are using "browser fingerprinting" and I expect that to become more & more prevalent. I suppose there are also workarounds for this issue.

2- Beware DNS lookups and DNS proxies. This is a good place to start: https://dnsleaktest.com/

And if you use a cell phone...Good Luck !!


Posted by:

George
07 Dec 2018

I’m trying to remember the last time Google held a gun to my head and made me do something I would rather not!


Posted by:

Daniel
07 Dec 2018

1) One radio personality weighed in on this and disagreed. See https://www.glennbeck.com/popular/still-want-to-believe-google-isnt-evil-then-dont-listen-to-this-interview

2) This would be relatively easy to test if you have just a little money and some time. Buy two new computers (or completely reinstall the software on two). Develop two different personalities with physical "addresses" in same neighborhood, different emails, different phone numbers, etc. Each personality needs to then look up and read websites that are as opposite as possible. One looks up rock music while the other is opera. One looks up liberal causes while the other looks up conservative causes. Etc, etc, etc. Then: set the computers in the same room and ask Google identically worded questions. Ask for suggestions on lawyers, doctors, hospitals, hair services, etc. See if there are any differences.


Posted by:

Will
07 Dec 2018

Critical thinking skills in this population are disappointingly very low. Just look at the last few years of elections, reflect on the reasons given for the choices, and you will see this issue. That is, if you are even somewhat informed, you will.


Posted by:

Howard Tuckey
07 Dec 2018

It's strange that this should appear in my inbox right now!
I did a search just this afternoon for a specific item - a CCW holster in fact - and looked at several of them, using DDG for my browser.
FOllowing that I immediately went to FB to check on a post I'm following, and the first thing I saw was an ad for CCW holsters!
DDGo Figure!


Posted by:

Nezzar
08 Dec 2018

Dear Bob,
Thanks for your comments on this subject. Personally, I can think for myself. I always check multiple sources when researching anything on the Internet. That way,I can make a decision based on info from different web pages.
And, I like Google.


Posted by:

John
08 Dec 2018

I use duckduckgo over google. I use https everyhere, all my settings on computer, browser, etc are set for privacy. Why do settings keep changing for internet in control panal and others? They try to go to Yahoo browser and I delete it but it keeps coming back. I finally got rid of it now it goes to Bing or MSN on the settings in control panal. How can I stop this??????????? Thank you for your expertise.


John


Posted by:

John
08 Dec 2018

I use duckduckgo over google. I use https everyhere, all my settings on computer, browser, etc are set for privacy. Why do settings keep changing for internet in control panal and others? They try to go to Yahoo browser and I delete it but it keeps coming back. I finally got rid of it now it goes to Bing or MSN on the settings in control panal. How can I stop this??????????? Thank you for your expertise.


John


Posted by:

Paul
08 Dec 2018

study or no study, It takes serious effort to find new info or 'go in a different' direction while searching.
As for elections, believe half of what you see and none of what you read.


Posted by:

Karen
08 Dec 2018

If you are truly concerned about the search bubble, go to your local library (or a branch farther from your house) and do a search there. Compare the search results to the ones you get at home and/or on your phone. I tried this a few times myself, and the results were the same at several different library branches - even when I used the machines that don't require you to log in with your library card.


Posted by:

SharonH
08 Dec 2018

Receiving ads based on interest (and proving almost everyone is being tracked) is just the beginning.

DDG is now almost as bad as Google when it comes to skewing results and "scrubbing" information. And I no longer believe DDG's claim of not tracking its users. Something has changed with them in the last 1 1/2 years or so. Can't put my finger on it, but they are different from the DDG of years ago.
Trust no one.


Posted by:

john
08 Dec 2018

I like reading Bob's articles. However, I sometimes wonder if Bob is sponsored by Google. It would be nice if he would let us know if he receives any compensation for his defense of Google and its products.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can stop wondering. Google doesn't know or care what I write about them, be it pro or con.


Posted by:

Jeff
08 Dec 2018

Yeah, this piece sounds a little too Google friendly for me. Some of the arguments sound as opaque, and as biased, as a Snopes write-up.


Posted by:

RandiO
08 Dec 2018

Some have the need to believe in an external Deity.
This was the case back in the analog days, and now there are talks of 'digital religions'. Some go as far as calling google one of the prophets these digital religions.
Oh, whatever! You can go "search" the definition of religion yourself. Then, you can also make up your own mind whether Mr. Rankin belongs.
[Instead of ddg or google, I used StartPage.com for my search. I just hope that does not enter me thru the narthex of some other digital religion!]


Posted by:

NiteCat
08 Dec 2018

Oh, I've noticed a marked difference in my search results. Where I used to get everything under the sun for results, they have drastically narrowed my results and where there were always multiple pages in the results, I'm finding that a lot of mine are just 1 or 2 pages now. And I keep my politics very low key. I guess the questions I'm asking Google are the "trigger". I don't even get good results from questions about the history of world events anymore.


Posted by:

Ken Heikkila
08 Dec 2018

Thanks Bob for your continued efforts to dispel FUD!
From the comments it seems many of your readers agree with me, though there are still the conspiracy minded who couldn't live without the FUD.


Posted by:

Chuckles
08 Dec 2018

@Ken Heikkila The conspiracy minded FUD can be put to rest if Bob would answer the question above regarding Google compensation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As I said earlier, you can stop wondering. Google doesn't know or care what I write about them, be it pro or con. I've written positive things about Google, and no check showed up in the mail. I've written negative things about Google, and no black helicopters either. The fact that I choose to debunk rather than spread rumors does not make me a shill for Google. If you want my opinion, based on my research, stay tuned.


Posted by:

RandiO
10 Dec 2018

@Chuckles >> I am not understanding why Mr. Rankin needs to discuss his financial compensation with you (or us?)? Maybe you are thinking that you are entitled to a great FREE blog (and its funding details), which needs a cash flow to continue to prosper and somehow pay for all those Snicker bars.


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