Universal Google personalization a virtual given

Just two days ago, Google announced that it was extending personalized search results to people who weren't even signed into a Google account. Supposedly, we can choose to opt out -- but let's get real.

Congratulations! You're the proud owner of personalized search results -- whether you like it or not. This past Friday, Google announced the extension of personalized search results to everyone, by default, whether or not they were signed into a Google account. And, yes, we can choose to opt out -- but let's get real. No matter how savvy we get, no matter how many hundreds of millions of us are on Facebook, the overwhelming majority of Internet users still don't go messing around with settings. Furthermore, these particular instructions seem designed to trip you up. I'll paraphrase the note at the bottom: "After you've completed Step 2, you'll need to do Step 1 again, as Google has made sure that Step 2 automatically nullifies the work you've done in Step 1. The benefit of extending personalization to all and sundry, says my PC World colleague David Coursey, is that we see more relevant search results and more relevant ads. The negative, he claims, is the privacy trade-off. There's another negative, though, one perhaps even more serious than the privacy issue. After all, between pokes, tweets, and Farmville, it's not like we've got much privacy left. No, the problem is really one of homogeneity, and the fundamental shift this represents in the way Google gives us information. Google's original algorithm was set up to give us the best possible information on our query, based on the collective assessment of everyone online. Obviously, that situation couldn't last. Black-hat SEOs quickly found ways to appear to be lots and lots of people online, effectively spoofing our collective wisdom in favor of whatever site they were trying to promote. For the past decade or so, Google has done an admirable job of delivering relevant results while staying a step or two ahead of those who would scramble to the top of the SERP heap, relevance be darned. But the definition of relevance has shifted, from "the best option according to the wisdom of the crowds" to "the option that best matches what you already think". This is great if you're running the same search over and over again -- not so good if you're running new searches in an attempt to broaden your horizons. It's a funny thing, relevance. Sometimes it means matching our expectations. And sometimes it means telling us something we don't know. With this latest move, Google has effectively decided to soothingly offer up content that dovetails precisely with our existing worldview. Woe betide those of us who search to learn new things that don't necessarily dovetail so precisely. Maybe we'll have to switch to Bing.

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