As more and more is talked about personalised search, the main search engines are increasingly tailoring their search results to a user’s browsing and shopping habits, Social Media activity and other online behaviours. Google calls this your “Filter Bubble”, and it’s designed to serve up relevant content to you, primarily what the search engine thinks you want to see. To use an example provided by DuckDuckGo, a Republican searching for “Obama US Elections” will have been accessing very different articles and online resources to a Democrat searching with the same term. These two users will therefore have wildly different SERPs due to their political leanings. So, you get more of the content you want and less of the stuff you don’t. In the never ending crusade to provide you with the very best in relevant and salient content from the maelstrom of information on the internet, this can surely only be a good thing, right? Well, not necessarily. What this actually means is that you get more of the content and articles that you agree with and less of that which you don’t, meaning that you could be missing out on important information.
To test exactly what these filter bubbles mean for search, I decided to do a little test of my own. This was in no way done in a scientific or structured method and was by no means an exhaustive study. A colleague and I were trying, and failing miserably, to connect his new phone to his network and so needed information on how to do this. I simply took three search engines, Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo, and input the search term “Connecting iphone 5 to EE” into each of them..
So, what did each search engine return for this phrase?
The main results returned in Google were review hubs and ecommerce sites where I could purchase an iPhone. All this was based on my previous online activity using the Chrome browser, which was researching and reading reviews of the iPhone. Very low down in the SERPs listings there were also some news articles on the EE network itself. There were no articles in the top 50 results on how to connect the phone up to the network. As you can see, these results were utterly useless for my search needs.
Very much like the Google SERPs, Bing returned manufacturer, sales, and review sites. Again, there were no articles on how to connect to the network in the top 50 results. Interestingly though, the main results returned were sites with “iPhone” in the page title.
These results were mainly informational – Wikis, professional body sites, forums and the like, and the second result was one that provided step by step instructions on how to connect your iPhone 5 to the EE network. Exactly what I had been searching for and very much how I remember Google to have been when I first started using it at university in 1998.
So what does this mean for search?
If we look at the UK search volumes, Google is flying high with over 90% market share, but things are very different in the US, where their market share is a measly 61% in comparison.
As you can see from the above tables, the other search engines are starting to make inroads into Google’s dominant position and clawing back some of their market share. This is more so in the US than the UK, but the erosion is starting to gain pace. With December 2012 search volumes in the UK hitting 2.7 billion and 19.7 billion in the US there’s a lot to play for, and these numbers are only set to increase. I predict that in 2013, Google’s share of the search pie will continue to decrease, but I don’t think it will be all doom and gloom. Google’s search algorithms are mightily impressive and on the whole, I do like the idea of the filter bubble, especially as it generally does tailor its results very well for who it thinks I am. To a certain degree It is possible to switch off this tailored search. One way is to sign out of your Google account, or, if you use Chrome, to use incognito mode.
“If someone prefers to search Google without personalization, add “&pws=0” (the “pws” stands for “personalized web search”) to the end of the Google search url to turn it off, or use the incognito version of Chrome. Personalization tends to be a nice relevance improvement overall, but it doesn’t trigger that much–when it launched, the impact was on the order of one search result above the fold for one in five search results.” – Matt Cutts
SEO companies tend to tailor their services for Google’s search algorithms, and every client wants to be “number 1 in Google”. With Google’s G+ platform and other range of services, this means that they are now an indispensible part of most of our online lives. I, for one, would not be without my Nexus 7. There is a wealth of knowledge and information at my fingertips, and the convenience of having it connected to my Gmail account means that I never have to worry about losing my settings and data. What I have started doing more and more though is using other search engines such as DuckDuckGo to push beyond my search bubble and see what else is out there. I also find that for certain types of searches, it provides better results than Google or Bing, but I use it alongside one or both of these. So whilst I predict a rise in the number of people using these alternative search engines, I do think it will form an additional part of their initial Google or Bing search, not replace it.
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