Since I began teaching reference, I have discouraged students from using Google for their treasure hunts for a variety of reasons, mostly because I know they already know how to search Google. As Google changes, though, my new reason for discouraging students from using Google is that their new attempts to personalize and socialize search results are leading away from “objective” understandings of a page’s quality*. For many reasons, this is not good for library use.

I was one of the early adopters of Google. It was refreshing after the cluttered pages of Yahoo and Lycos to see that simple expanse of white. As they perfected their algorithms, the searches got more and more precise. I knew I could get a balance of precision and recall that was satisfying to me. At some point, the search results began to get less and less satisfying. I could tell when they were messing with their algorithms because it would get harder to get good results with the same search strings I had been using all along. Here is one person’s example. I was getting irrelevant results like this all the time. (In fact, I just searched for “precision and recall” on Google and got pages of SEO pages, along with wikipedia and scholarly articles I don’t have access to at home without jumping through hoops.) Part of the reason for this is that Google has been “personalizing” my search results, sometimes based on where I am (though it thinks I am in a large city with the same name in another state, so those results are generally useless), sometimes based on what I have searched for previously.

Here are some pages focusing on changes at Google and why it might become a less useful search engine as it tries to become more social:

First, we’ll start with Google’s own explanations of the current changes to search: Notice the adorable hand-drawn graphics and quirky search examples. This is to distract you from what is really going on. While they are personalizing and socializing your results, they are also gathering information about you. Worse than that, though, they are limiting what you can find using their service. I honestly don’t mind trading some anonymous data that will be aggregated in order to get good search results, but I mind very much that their limited understanding of who I am will dictate what they show me. I’ve long been concerned about the effect of the Internet on the availability of information– I contend that the amount of information actually available to many of us goes down if we rely solely on the Internet/Web. I guess that’s a post for another day. An NPR article about Google’s new privacy plan. and These articles trace Google’s decline from the “simple white box and search results that made the search engine such a joy to use in the first place” to where it is now. (The discussion of the Olympics search reminded me of my futile attempt to use Google to find out where and when a conference happened last year so I could do a write-up on it.) This is just a quick article by one tech writer explaining why he has switched to Bing as his main search provider. Interestingly, the commenters support Google limiting its results to Google properties because they say it makes sense financially for Google.

Here is the way one organization is fighting the new Google: a browser extension for Firefox that compares search results from Google and from other search engines. “Don’t be evil” is Google’s motto, but like the author of this piece, I’m certain Google no longer lives by that motto. This is an interesting article from a different point of view… not that of a searcher who wants the best results, but that of a consultant to companies who want to rank higher on Google results. Notice that a key to having the best results is no longer being most relevant, most linked, or most popular, but being a member of Google’s network. In his example, Britney Spears’ Facebook page does not show up in search results for her, while her Google+ profile does show up. What happens to those companies who have their primary online presence on Facebook?

One point I’ve had about getting too comfortable with Google has been that when it inevitably goes South, the lazy search habits it encourages will keep us from being able to get good results out of other engines. Over-reliance on Google will also cause us to overlook quicker ways to get information, such as through an online directory or in a print resource. For individuals, this might not be a big deal, as long as you know you’re making that trade-off. For librarians, though, who are providing information for others, it’s important that we challenge ourselves and keep our skills up.

As for me, I’m switching back to the Firefox browser from Chrome, staying logged out of Google +, and using alternative search engines, including meta-search engines. I’m currently experimenting with Bing. On Safari. (And a commenter on one of the above articles mentioned Duck Duck Go.

Fight the Feed

*I don’t believe there are true objective measures of a page’s quality or relevance, but I do believe that commercial consideration is NOT a good measure of quality!