The following is an excerpt from The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. Click here to read a full PDF excerpt of the book’s introduction.
A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa. —Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder
We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us. —Marshall McLuhan, media theorist
Few people noticed the post that appeared on Google’s corporate blog on December 4, 2009. It didn’t beg for attention—no sweeping pronouncements, no Silicon Valley hype, just a few paragraphs of text sandwiched between a weekly roundup of top search terms and an update about Google’s finance software. Not everyone missed it. Search engine blogger Danny Sullivan pores over the items on Google’s blog looking for clues about where the monolith is headed next, and to him, the post was a big deal. In fact, he wrote later that day, it was “the biggest change that has ever happened in search engines.” For Danny, the headline said it all: “Personalized search for everyone.”
Starting that morning, Google would use fifty-seven signals—everything from where you were logging in from to what browser you were using to what you had searched for before—to make guesses about who you were and what kinds of sites you’d like. Even if you were logged out, it would customize its results, showing you the pages it predicted you were most likely to click on.
Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results—the ones that the company’s famous Page Rank algorithm suggests are the most authoritative based on other pages’ links. But since December 2009, this is no longer true. Now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular—and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.
It’s not hard to see this difference in action. In the spring of 2010, while the remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I asked two friends to search for the term “BP.” They’re pretty similar—educated white left-leaning women who live in the Northeast. But the results they saw were quite different. One of my friends saw investment information about BP. The other saw news. For one, the first page of results contained links about the oil spill; for the other, there was nothing about it except for a promotional ad from BP.
Even the number of results returned by Google differed—about 180 million results for one friend and 139 million for the other. If the results were that different for these two progressive East Coast women, imagine how different they would be for my friends and, say, an elderly Republican in Texas (or, for that matter, a businessman in Japan).
With Google personalized for everyone, the query “stem cells” might produce diametrically opposed results for scientists who support stem cell research and activists who oppose it. “Proof of climate change” might turn up different results for an environmental activist and an oil company executive. In polls, a huge majority of us assume search engines are unbiased. But that may be just because they’re increasingly biased to share our own views. More and more, your computer monitor is a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.
Google’s announcement marked the turning point of an important but nearly invisible revolution in how we consume information. You could say that on December 4, 2009, the era of personalization began.