Friday, September 10, 2010

Google Cookies - Not So Yummy for Your Tummy

In yesterday's post, we looked at the new "enhancement" to Google's search tool, Google Instant. Today, we need to look more closely at the seemingly helpful delivery of personalized search results that has been around much longer.

For those who don't know - and that's a distressingly large number of web users - Google's personalized search uses your browsing history to deliver search results that Google thinks you are more likely to find interesting. This means the results you see are no longer "neutral" rankings of all the thousands of sites competing for your attention. (Google's ranking algorithm is constantly evolving and highly secretive but is rumored to contain some 200 factors.) If your purpose in searching the web is to see what's out there - to find something new - then personalized search is not helpful at all, for it tends to present you with the same kinds of things you have searched for in the past. No, it is not the only influence on your search results, but it is a distortion of those results. And there is a larger problem here: the sneaky way Google delivers this "service" to you.

On December 4th, 2009, Google announced that personalized search would now be available to everyone. (Read the official statement here.) Going as far back as 2005 - though few people realized it - personalized search had been taking place whenever users were logged in to one of their Google accounts. If you're anything like me, you have multiple Google accounts for both personal and business purposes, such as Gmail, Blogger, Google Webmaster Tools, and on and on. But it is no longer necessary to be logged in at all. Anyone using any machine now receives personalized search results. How is this possible and why does it matter?

Hey Kids, Who Wants a Google Poop Cookie?

In theory, logged in users have always had the ability to opt-out of personalized search by deselecting web history in the upper right-hand side of the search screen. I say "in theory" because you have to watch this on all your accounts, especially if you are in and out of multiple accounts during the day, and even then many users have found this option seems to "spontaneously" re-select itself.

But now, it's more complicated - far too complicated for the average web user. Google tracks your search activity through a cookie in your browser, a cookie they tell us is "anonymous." If you want to disable search tracking, you must remove this cookie. And be prepared to do so over and over again, because it's going to keep coming back - whether you want it to or not. So, to recap, to disable personalized search you must first be aware that it is actually happening (most people aren't); you must know how to delete Google's cookies (most people don't); and you must be willing to take the time to do this pretty much every time you fire up each computer you use during the day.

But it gets better. Deleting the cookie, you see, is a little trickier than you might think. (See Google's official explanation here.) Google tells you to disable customization under the Web History option. The interesting thing is that if you then delete your browser's cookies (which all you porn surfers do every day before leaving your work station, right?) then you need to disable customization again because clearing your Google cookie turns on history-based customizations. Sweet!

So, what the hell happened to the axiomatic privacy concept of the opt-in?

What indeed! Why is it so bloody difficult to turn this thing off, and why do we have to do anything at all? What Google should have done - and what they once promised they would do - is to allow users to opt-in
to personalized search. This option should be prominently displayed on their home page - a page which offers plenty of real estate for a nice, big warning button. If you actually want your search engine to take notes on every place you go online because you believe that "optimized" search results are good for you, fine, you could have that option - if you wanted it. But the respectful, default setting of the search engine should be to leave the notebook closed.

Imagine going to a library to take out a couple of books to read. (You may not be old enough to remember such a quaint activity.) Now imagine that the librarian follows you everywhere you go in the public library. She watches as you browse through the selection, and reads over your shoulder as you leaf through the pages of something that interests you. You don't mind this at all, do you? It's perfectly normal. She can advise you on which choice would best develop your command of literature. You are reassured by the knowledge that, should you come back in 180 days, she will remember everything you looked at and can remind you what you liked and what you didn't. She didn't tell anybody what you like, even though it was a heady mix of racy novels and politically incorrect diatribes. You can trust her completely; she is there but to serve.

Preposterous isn't it? But your relationship with Google is far, far more disturbing in its implications. This librarian has been peeking over your shoulder for years and you probably never realized it. She remembers everything you've ever looked for online. And she never asked you for permission to do this! So you know what you need to do? You tell her to fuck off back to her little cubicle where she belongs. If you need her, you'll call her; otherwise, she is to mind her own bloody business and remember her place. This is a public library, not her library. And if she can't get that message into her officious little head, then she's going to get fired because there are other qualified librarians in the market who will do what they're supposed to and only that. They will tell you where the books are when you walk in the door, then leave you to it unless you specifically ask them for more help.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Google Instant - Just Say No

We always thought it was the government we should be watching out for. But it turns out that Big Brother has assumed a form that George Orwell would have had trouble imagining when he wrote 1984 shortly after World War II - an internet search engine by the name of Google. is the number-one ranked site on the internet according to Google's share of the search market was just under 63% as of July, 2010, far outstripping its closest competitors Yahoo (19%) and Microsoft's Bing (13%). It is the 300-lb gorilla in the room that no-one can ignore, and it has just thrown a big wad of techno-poop at the lesser primates in the room. The problem is that ordinary web users like you and I are getting splattered at the same time.

Google Instant is the new addition to Google's search tool that is being touted by the company as a great time saver for searchers. If you haven't had it rammed down your throat yet - it's not exactly subtle - you soon will. It presents search results in your browser window immediately as you begin to type in your search query. Google isn't prepared to wait for you to finish your thought. It is much cleverer than you and already knows what you should be searching for. It will show you what it thinks you should see even before you finish typing everything you planned to enter. It is like a boorish interlocutor who insists on completing your every sentence, assuming that he knows what you want to say. He doesn't. You have a mind of your own, and common politeness in a civilized and open society affords you the opportunity to express your thoughts completely without being interrupted. Well, not any more it doesn't - unless you switch off Google Instant. We should be thankful, I suppose, that we actually have the option to do that.

This innovation has the geeks all aflutter. As Google employee Matt Cutts explains on his blog, Google proudly proclaims that:
If everyone uses Google Instant globally, we estimate this will save more than 3.5 billion seconds a day. That’s 11 hours saved every second. With over a billion searches a day and over a billion users searching each week, that adds up to 350 million hours of user time saved a year. That’s 500+ human lifespans saved a year by this feature if everyone used it.
What an utterly irrelevant statistic. We might as well talk about how much the production of the greenhouse gas methane could be reduced if cows farted one less time each day. Who the hell cares if searching takes a fraction of a second less? What impact will that have on your life? Will it give you enough time to write that novel you've always talked about?

Why You Should be Worried About Google

Did you know that Google stores every search query you make? This information is not kept indefinitely for reasons of data storage capacity, but if government authorities sub poena your search history Google has to give it to them. If you aren't already, you need to be thinking twice about what that history is going to contain.

Google uses your search history to deliver personalized search. This has been happening for a while. It used to be most noticeable if you searched the web while logged in to one of your Google accounts, such as Gmail. But many users are starting to see this phenomenon even when they're not logged in. This is because Google knows your IP address - the location of your computer on the internet. Of course, they say they do this to help you find the information you want. It's all in your best interests, you see. Nothing to worry about....

Search suggestions have also been around for a while. These appear in a little window under the search box as you type in your search query. These suggestions supposedly show similar search terms that other web users are looking for, and are intended to give you ideas you might not have thought of by yourself. All very helpful, and innocuous, right?

Google Instant takes this to the next level - a highly intrusive, obnoxious level that insults our intelligence and manipulates us in an unacceptable way. The related search queries that Google deems relevant to your needs are not merely suggested; no, they are positively forced upon you whether or not you request them by completing a query and hitting 'enter.' Hitting 'enter' is so 20th Century! We can save you the trouble of moving your fingers that great distance. There is no need for the hippocampal region of your brain to strain itself formulating the intention that precedes motor action. No, we will do it all for you. We will tell you what you need to know; we are omniscient and telepathic; we predict your wants and we deliver them to you as your faithful servant.

Yes, I am laying it on a bit thick. You see, it is not just the rudeness or the arrogance of Google Instant that pisses me off. It's that Google is deliberately manipulating the generation of search queries when its job should be merely to deliver search results. The terms it suggests - whether based on actual popularity at some arbitrary starting point or on other criteria chosen at Google's sole discretion, such as, say, potential to deliver advertising revenue from Google Adwords - will enjoy an artificial boost in popularity. It will be impossible to tell whether any given search term is popular because people are genuinely interested in that term, or simply because Google has sent people there. And the great irony here is that Google will have no way of knowing this either, because despite their own opinion of themselves, they really can't read your mind. Going forward, then, how will Google be able to say that a particular search query (or keyword, as marketers call it) is really popular and therefore deserving of presentation to the surfing public? The great danger here is that searchers will be fed a progressively deteriorating stew of artificially popular search results that bear a similarly diminishing relationship to their actual information wants. Gorilla poop, if you will.

If you haven't read 1984, you are perfect fodder for thought control. If you choose to educate yourself by purchasing 1984 through links on this site, your purchase will help support this blog. Thank you.