Tailored answer to Google

Dear Google,
you wrote me about your new privacy policy and data collection. I went online and found out more. Among the reasons for this change, you say:

We also use this information to offer you tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results and ads.

Now: obviously, if I’m looking for a pizzeria nearby, I will certainly want tailored results. But apart from very specific cases, I really don’t want tailored content – and especially ads. It all started with language. When I search for something on Google, it assumes I want my results in italian, being my IP from here. This is true if I’m looking for Antonio De Curtis, aka Totò – a fantastic, very local italian actor of the 50es. But if it’s Sophia Loren, Martin Scorsese or Marina Sirtis, then perhaps I get better information from websites in english. I can still go to Google.com and search again, but the link is hidden: you clearly want me to stay within my local digital fence. Very annoying, considering that everyone now seems to speak english, and the world is going global – except for the world wide web, that is getting more local every week. Apple, Google, Facebook (not to mention Hulu and Spotify), everything seems to be localized. I know why (business, copyright and other monetary issues), but it’s very annoying. And stop calling it world wide. (Full disclosure: I have not translated this post with Google Translation. You can tell because it makes sense)

Tailored content is wrong for another reason. Let’s imagine we lived in a world of tailored results and ads. I wouldn’t know who Glenn Beck is (I disagree), I’d never see a Geico commercial (I don’t drive), I wouldn’t even know when is the Superbowl (I hate macho sports), I would’t have heard Alejandro by Lady Gaga (being over 50), or heard about Ernst Haeckl (I had very low grades in science). Much of the stuff I see I don’t like, or it’s outside my main interests. But it’s part of a discourse: how would I laugh at a Letterman Geico joke? If I couldn’t watch Glenn Beck, how would I know if I’m sane? Tailored content, my friends, rhymes with fascism. I am always glad to be informed about the latest findings in tampon technology, even though I don’t have a monthly period. It’s called serendipity – a beautiful word with a beautiful meaning. The web is full of serendipity (“pleasant surprise”), and Google has been an excellent tool for that. Tailored results means: “What would you like to read/see/hear?” It isn’t customer gratification: it’s more like auto-fellatio. I am supremely interested in what I would not want to hear – but maybe my neighbor (or the majority of my fellow citizens) would. Don’t listen to me, look at the Daily Show: what would it do without Fox News? Do you think Stewart watches it all day (or so he says) because he likes it? The answer to “What do I want to see?” is “Everything”, in relevance order, including results in languages I don’t know: maybe the best link is in Tagalog and I’ll discover this beautiful, poetic language spoken by millions worldwide.

Which brings us to another little beef I have with you.

Google relevance. Everyone knows that there’s a secret algorithm called Page Rank™, that determines the order in which the results appear. A few of us also know that Google does not distinguish between a “good” link (say one from my blog to Save the Children) and a “bad” link (for example one to Glenn Beck’s website, where I read something truly crazy): a link is a link. So if I link Glenn’s site, I’m going to give it a little more relevance in Google results. This is very wrong: considering the millions of links published every day of funny, ugly, questionable websites, it’s obvious that the formula link = appreciation (or relevancy) is flawed. I want to be able to link the NRA website in order to tell my readers how wrong it is; at the moment I put the url in plain text, without a link. Isn’t that sad? I’ve been trying to locate the worst restaurant in the world for years: if we could find it and it went viral, its website would get millions of hits, but this wouldn’t help it as far as Restaurant Rank™. It’s the same problem with the dislike button on Facebook: everyone wants it, but it’s not going to happen. Bad for business. In the world of Apple, Facebook and Google everyone is happy and smiling, people only visit websites that agree with them and never, ever have to dislike something: they simply don’t see it.

You’ll go ahead with your tailored content. I’ll keep looking for the Google.com link (and sometimes .be, .nl, .de and others – even harder to reach), and for ways to escape tailored results. If you could make it optional, I’d appreciate it: after all you’re getting all my personal info already anyway.

(revised march 29th @ 7:33pm)

3 thoughts on “Tailored answer to Google

  1. Yes, and you really hit on one of the biggest themes of SM (and by that I mean Social Media) research right now, but there’s a further problem, as far as I see it.
    The customizing algorithm, that super-complex equation which should, at least in principle, transmit a mirror-perfect picture of me to the guys in the Silicon Valley is, well, pretty much wrong. Just think about it: the little ADS you get on top of your Gmail, or the customized search or the ridiculous sponsors on the side of your FB profile – where they ever 100% correct, 100% fitting?
    In my case, even very recently, several dramatically wrong ads and search proposals (propaganda from FI, cold cuts when I was fully veg, Nivea aftershave?!) led me to think that, even IF I wanted a perfectly tailored, perfectly fitting, perfectly dull, perfectly unsurprising internet experience, well, good ol’Goog is NOT capable of providing it. Which obviously makes another point for why one should avoid it: it is, at least at this stage, fully unreliable.

    (the dislike button, and the consequences it would have, would probably give me papers to write for the rest of my life)

  2. I’m preaching the same things to my friends since months, but to my surprise they don’t seem interested at all. Most of them don’t even understand or notice the difference betweeen “old” Google and the new localized system. It looks like they consider the search engine as a mere job tool, and their freetime as an extension of their office. They like the results they find, so why being worried? I’m getting a bit pessimist about the (ex-)world wide web, I expect that in a decade or s, owe will be discussing how we could possibly let all its freedom go.

  3. Great comments, thanks. I might just add a sad note: in a decade or so we will be discussing how it was possible to enjoy so much freedom before – before now, that is – and not realize it.