SMX East keynote: Google, the personalization bubble and relevant content

Published on
by Brafton Editorial
Google's personalized results can provide users targeted content (and perhaps give marketers chances to engage tailored audiences), but Eli Pariser points to some shortcomings of this evolving search system at SMX East 2011.

In his SMX keynote, Eli Pariser, founder of Avaaz.org and author of The Filter Bubble, dug into the idea of relevant content. With personalization filters on the web, Google increasingly uses data to deliver the results it thinks people want. For marketers, this type of personalization can be the “holy grail,” says Search Engine Land executive editor Chris Sherman, but Pariser believes transparency is needed so people don’t miss opportunities to connect to new ideas or items on the web (and maybe this could even be good for businesses…)

Pariser started his presentation by describing a test search conducted by several of his friends (in different locations and with different interests). They all searched for the phrase “Egypt,” but the results returned on Google varied according to each user. This is because Google looks at 57 different factors for searchers to determine what’s relevant to them, Pariser says. Personalization filters are always at play; he suggests it’s just a matter of how subtle they are (or are not).

Google’s personal filters offer some beneficial marketing for businesses that publish information Google’s algorithm deems relevant to logged in users, but Pariser takes the position that there are missed opportunities for consumers – and maybe also marketers – because Google is not transparent about the data it uses to make inferences to target content. He points to the example of searching for a movie online. Maybe, he says, people feel they should be watching the documentary Waiting for Superman (and would like to be the type of people who do), but they secretly just want to watch Iron Man. If Google were to hypothetically suggest Iron Man a la Netflix’s “suggested titles,” they might not connect to the new ideas they would if they had to take the time to search for Waiting for Superman.

Pariser says that in one day’s searches and content, “I may just want info junk food, but tomorrow I might want info that provokes me. The point is I don’t want to be force-fed.” And he worries that many consumers don’t even realize there are other content options because they don’t understand that Google is tailoring results to them.

He also points to the false sense of security businesses might get in terms of their own rankings and online visibility. Pariser told marketers in attendance that before they get excited about their sites’ rankings, they should log out of Google accounts and make sure it’s not just their personal filter bubbles providing certain search outcomes.

Nonetheless, he was quick to point out that he’s not calling Google evil. Personalized results seem to be the way of the future, for better or worse, and Pariser believes Google is more ethical than many other companies in terms of developing these filters. Instead, what he wants is more transparency and – ultimately – regulation.

Perhaps for the time being, all marketers can do is target their content to their ideal audiences and hope that it matches Google’s personal filter bubbles for these audiences (a win-win scenario?). They should also heed Pariser’s advice about logging out before checking their own SERP visibility!

It’s also worth noting that engineers who work on recommendations believe Eli Pariser isn’t doing justice to their personalization work. Shortly after Pariser’s keynote, one member of the recommendation system community took to Twitter to say, “Many of us in #recsys community are very concerned about societal impact. [Eli Pariser] gets us wrong.”

The debate continues and there are many sessions to come about the personalization of search at SMX East. Stay tuned.

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