Search Smarter? Quack Quack Quack

My name is James . . . and . . . I am a Google-holic.

There.  I’ve said it.  That’s supposed to be first step in getting better, isn’t it?  I am sure there is a 12 step program for people like me located right next to the one for the Apple-obsessed!

My symptoms:  I own a Google Chromebook (love it!), a Google Phone (Nexus 4 – love it!), have Google as my home page and use almost all Google products including Google Drive which not only has provided me with safe online storage, but also has enabled me to end my addiction to Microsoft Office (the apps on Drive are completely adequate).  I even own Google tee shirts (several).  The only leap I have not made is to Google+.  Facebook still has more of my users, but the day will come . . .

HOWEVER, as we all know there is a ugly underside to Google.  They are in the target marketing business.  Their revenue comes from selling highly targeted online advertising to companies big and small.

Target marketing becomes more valuable the more refined the target.  For example, a company trying to reach pregnant women in the Northeast who are between 25 and 30 years old might pay $4 parceks to a marketing company who could refine the target down to just ‘women.’  They might pay $6 parceks to a company that could further refine it down to women in the northeast and $10 parceks to one that could ad the age and pregnancy factor in.  (What’s a pracek?  I don’t know:  just a monetary unit I made up).

So to make their marketing more valuable, Google is on a constant quest to gather more and more data about their marketing targets:  you and me.  That’s why all of those wonderful Google products (that I love) function under one account:  they all feed data back to Mother Google about everything you do on each one.  Watch a video on YouTube?  The topic and keywords become part of your targeting profile.  Use Google to search for ‘Two-headed Llamas in Peru’ and suddenly you may see an online add for genuine Peruvian llama wool sweaters.  That’s how this works.

And none of that bothers me.  I’m an adult.  I know how to recognize advertising and I am comfortable with my own response to it.  I don’t consider any of this to be an invasion of my privacy.  I always assume I have none while online.

HOWEVER, there is one bit of Google data gathering that does bug me, and it has to do with search results.  You realize that when you search with Google, the results you get are tailored to the information in the target marketing profile they have created for you, don’t you?  I could search for ‘Two-headed llamas’ at the same moment my friend in Arkansas does and we’d get different results, ordered to appeal to our own individual online behaviors.

The end result of this kind of filtering is that our search results tend to reinforce what we already believe.  If we hate Obama, every search we do is going to further reinforce that.  If we think Ted Cruz is a modern patriot, every search we do will reinforce that.  If we think The Affordable Care Act is the greatest thing since sliced bread, our search results will reflect that.

I don’t believe Google is the cause or even the main cause of our current political polarization, but you do have to wonder about the effect all of this reinforcement is having!

I went to high school back when they taught us how to question, research and THINK.  I learned that it’s usually best to really listen to both sides of an argument before making up my mind.   As we get more and more of our information from online sources served up to us by the likes of Google, we are only hearing one side of an argument: the side we already favor.  It’s a little disturbing, don’t you think?

That’s why today, in a fit of Google-filtered frustration I tried something new.  I am in Mexico and it has been so frustrating to have that location filter added to my search results.  I can search for ‘Two-headed llamas in Peru’ and all of my results will be in Spanish because I am in a Spanish speaking country.  They will also rank from Mexico first and then from other places . . . .when all I really wanted was an article or two from Smithsonian or Nat Geo and a photo.

I did some digging and came up with something called ‘DuckDuckGo.com’ It’s a search engine that does not track online behavior and does not filter results based on past behavior.  DDG makes money by selling premium placement – just like Google – and also by receiving a commission on items purchased through online marketing affiliates like Amazon when the purchase originated with a DDG search.

I tried DuckDuckGo this morning and was pretty pleased with the results – high praise from an admitted Google-holic.  If you’re interested in getting the whole story on any topic, why not give it a try and let me know what you think.  Next time you want to do a search, just type ‘Duckduckgo.com’ in your address bar and search away.  Here’s a short video describing the service:  https://duckduckgo.com/about .

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