Searching on Google, Bing and Yahoo! is free. But to be profitable, all three engines sell ads.
Advertisers bid for the chance to appear on searches for certain pre-selected keywords. In practice, this means a company may appear on top of or in the sidebar of search results for the phrase “best toys”, regardless of what toys they sell.
There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this system, so long as users are aware it exists. But sadly, many aren’t.
In the TAI study, 52% of survey respondents thought the web pages that tend to appear at the very top of their search results were those that were most relevant to their keywords. Only 40% believed they were most likely to be paid advertising.
According to TAI, “as with any free service, users do not necessarily invest much time or mental effort in ensuring that the service they are receiving is valuable or comes ‘with a catch’”.
Personalised search essentially predicts which results an individual user is most interested in receiving. This is done by recording a user’s previous search results – and the top three all do it.
“Every time you click on something it’s recorded and kept, so the search engines probably know more about you than you know about yourself,” says Henninger.
“They use that personalised search to give you information they think you want, as well as for producing personalised advertisements, which is what the search engines are in the business of doing.”
This is why the same search done from two different computers can yield very different results. So if a Sydneysider searches for panthers, for example, their top result may be related to the Penrith Panthers rugby league club, whereas someone living in the US may get results relating to the animal.
This innovation seems like a great one – what could be better than getting the results you want, every time? But as Henninger argues, “it’s constantly filtering what it thinks you want, rather than what you might really be interested in.
“If a journalist is using a search engine, they’re going to be delivered results that are filtered, and [they’ll write] stories that are then going to be filtered again through to the consumer of that story. So it’s possible that the stories being written ... are really so filtered that [the end users aren’t] getting anything other than what the search engines are trying to sell in the way of advertisements.”
She says that while this is an extreme projection, it is a possibility.