The trouble with Google Search

The more Google learns about your preferences, the tighter the doors of the world shut around you.

Technology these days has been making incessant attempts at learning our likes, dislikes, wants, needs, desires and tastes in a bid to be ‘smart’ and in the name of efficiency and helpfulness. It is becoming the personal secretary nobody asked for. Ever since this craze started the face of this attempt, for better or worse, for the average internet user, has been Google[^ The search engine, not the company itself—hence the clarification in the title too.].

Why technology wants to be clever as opposed to easy-to-use is beyond me. If something is easy enough to use we would hardly want an assistant to do the job for us. Even going by the idea that four hands are better than two one must realise that in the real world the additional pair of hands rarely comes without a brain attached; and this makes all the difference. In being a clever assistant most technology is becoming an annoying, attention-seeking one; it is becoming precisely the kind of assistant you would want to fire.

When cleverness is like a poor beta feature

My displeasure with such programmes has long been laid out in the form of two articles. One was a direct argument[^ I have since taken the article down choosing, for personal reasons, not to migrate it to the current tenth anniversary of this website.] where I wrote about why I picked Airmail over Spark, Email, Inbox and other such apps to hardly my e-mails because the ‘smart’ approach the latter apps use simply got in my way and messed up my otherwise straightforward e-mail workflow[^ For the curious, I employ a three-stage e-mail workflow. First, if an e-mail can be addressed within one minute I do so. Second, one of four things happens to all my other e-mails: if I need them for later reference I flag them and keep them in my inbox, if they are even mildly unimportant I delete them, if they are e-mails that are interesting but I have no use for immediately I archive them, if I need to address an e-mail but cannot do so within a minute I leave it in my inbox without a flag. Third, keeping in mind that all e-mails are now either deleted, archived, flagged or untouched, I deal with the last two groups by either archiving e-mails once I am done with them or leaving them untouched until they are dealt with. That way I know my inbox only has important e-mails that either need my attention or I will have need for soon. Lastly, I deal with newsletters and the like by adding select articles to my Safari reading list and deleting (or, rarely, archiving) the newsletter immediately.]. Except for obvious ones like bookings and newsletters most apps always trip in categorising e-mails. And e-mail is not a domain where tripping makes things easy.

Some e-mail apps reorganised my inbox snatching control from my hands while others used weird snoozing tricks. I have since left Airmail too thanks to its adamant folder structuring practice that keeps its folders disparate from my existing ones and ends up duplicating folders as a result. Again, this is a case of an app snatching control and deciding for you. All this, of course, is to say nothing of the privacy concerns that come with letting apps store your login credentials in their own servers. I have since returned to the simple and straightforward mail.app on both iOS and macOS.

Back when Google came into existence it was not unlike a directory of websites catalogued under various suitable topics. If you searched for certain keywords, therefore, and if someone else too searched for the same keywords you would both get the same results. This made—and still makes—a lot of sense. If you went into a library today you and anyone else looking for books on a certain topic would likely both come across the same set of books, give or take a couple.

Also, there was healthy competition in those early days. The effectiveness of searches was directly proportional to how much of the web had been crawled. This was like a larger library being potentially more likely to provide better resources for you when compared to a smaller one. Somewhere around then Google went from being a search engine to your personal portal to the web, meant exclusively to please you. And that is when the trouble began.

Google, your personal silo

Imagine a telephone directory that decided if you needed to see someone's phone number or not. In much the same manner as soon as Google started tweaking its search results its core purpose took the back seat. Instead of giving you results most relevant to what you wanted it would now give you also consider your previous searches and (what it perceives as) you interests to fine-tune the search results you get.

Who is to say they did not go further and make arrangements to tune results in the name of political correctness, decency and other subjective metrics? This amounts to censorship. A searcher may not exactly be right-leaning but when he searches for something he ought to get the whole picture, whether left, right, centre or whatever else, political, scientific, economic, environmental, industrial etc.

The more deeply we believe in a certain outlook the less likely we are to appreciate opposing perspectives.

In almost all cases people search for something because they do not know the answer. It then becomes the moral responsibility of whoever provides the answer (or a path to it) to do so without bias. Because explaining with bias, however deep or shallow, is hardly different from propaganda.

The end result of all this is that Google goes from being a neutral search engine—there should be no other kind of search engine but I digress—to an ideologically-driven one giving you answers it knows you expect so that you are under the impression that it is giving you all the right answers. After all who is not eager to a fault when it comes to believing themselves?

Such silos are dangerous for society and I had said as much in one of my older articles. They deepen the divide and make people less open the possibility that they are wrong. Left or right, believer in extreme political correctness or not, believer in a free market or not, racist or not, sexist or not, everyone has something to learn about their stance and about their stubbornness in keeping their stance. And the more we work with platforms that echo our beliefs the more likely we are to delude ourselves that our beliefs are correct and the more likely we are to start believing more deeply. The more deeply we believe in a certain outlook the less likely we are to appreciate opposing perspectives and change our stance.

There are technical challenges too

The problem with Google today is not one of mindset or approach alone. Google's synonymity with the web itself has given it a monopoly on how people interact with the near-infinite data available to them. This means, somewhat fearfully, what people read, what they watch and what they listen to. In turn it means Google gets to decide what people believe in, what they discuss, what conversations start and what conversations die, what trends rise and what trends fall and a lot more that will shape our society tomorrow.

This is an incredibly powerful position and by doing something as simple as making a task hard Google can guide us towards something it prefers. The human mind is a curious one: drunk with information we will stagger away from a path when the going gets tough and settle for absolutely any other means of consuming more information.

With Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) the search engine giant has made some websites more preferable than others to its algorithm. Perhaps AMP will improve but in its current state it renders parts of websites unusable and, to add insult to injury, there is no way you can turn off that abomination. If you want to use Google, you will have to tolerate AMP. And therein lies the problem: not only is Google deciding for us, it is also showing people its own half-baked version of every ‘AMP-powered’ website on its search results and crippling the image of those websites in turn.

If the web is not helping you at the end of the day, if it does not appear to be working in your best interests, you are better off without it.

Giving the company the benefit of the doubt (which it probably does not deserve) let us suppose that AMP will get corrected over time. Yet Google has other problems just as bad to deal with. For example, following a tussle with Getty, to set things straight the company ended up chopping off one of its own limbs: it pulled arguably the most useful feature of its image search capability. Google no longer allows you to open up an image with one click.

First of all, as a mediator, there was no reason for Google to do this. If websites prefer not to be hot linked they can choose to prevent it by themselves with a simple line of code in their robots.txt so that clicking to view an image directly via Google will display an error or, better still, redirect to the page on the website where that image has been used. That the average internet user does not have knowledge of this is what allows Google to exploit it; by simply removing that feature Google now completely changes how people search for images online and forces them to visit the website hosting it.

There is always an alternative

The other problem—as with any monopoly—is that most people seem blissfully unaware of alternatives to Google. On iOS, for example, there is an option to change your default search engine. The same is true on Mac[^ On iOS head to Settings → Safari → Search engine. And on macOS look under Preferences in the Safari menu → Search → Search engine.]. Microsoft will undoubtedly have a similar option not least because they have their own search engine Bing. Android too, despite being a Google product, is known enough for its customisation that it likely has an option to switch your default search engine.

Go ahead and pick DuckDuckGo. If you are in the US consider taking advantage of the Bing reward points system that lets you exchange usage times for gift cards. At least explore other search engines without blindly turning to Google. You will likely find that the search results they provide might be superior in some ways since, especially in the case of DuckDuckGo—my personal choice—there is a lot of respect for privacy and you get neutral searches.

Of course the downside of all this is that you may miss the accuracy of searches (read, echoes in your silo) that comes from Google. On the one hand you will eventually get used to looking at pages two to five of your search results; on the other you might spend less time wandering aimlessly on the web because there is little to distract you.

As with everything there are perks and falls—after all Google is dominating the field for a reason. But that should not let you lose control of how you search the web. Because if the web is not helping you at the end of the day, if it does not appear to be working in your best interests, you are better off without it. But if Google is subtly puppeteering your web habits, firmly discourage it. Nip it in the bud because the trouble with Google Search may, after all, have taken root only because we let it.