Google manipulates search results in several different ways. It gives you results depending on where you are geographically, using your IP address to determine where you are. It collates what other people in your geographic area have been searching for and suggests locally popular search terms to you. It also changes your search results based on your own previous searches and currently open browser windows. You could say that Google spies on your other open web browser tabs, and changes your search results accordingly.
In this example search below, you can see I was looking for “78rpm” – and search result #8 was a Tom Waits related item. That’s kind of a peculiar return to have in the coveted top 10 – why is it there, when Tom Waits’ career started years after 78rpm records went out of style?
If you look at the other tabs that are open, you can see I had been doing searches for Tom Waits album art. The 78rpm search was completely unrelated to the previous searches, but Google made some heavy-handed assumptions that if I ever searched for Tom Waits, I will always want Tom Waits in my search returns. Not a very good theory, actually! In fact, this search return seemed so strange that I then tried the same search term on a computer that did not have the same search history.
The Tom Waits entry did not show up until around return number 44 — it didn’t appear until the fourth page!
What does this say about how Google is shaping what I see? How often do seekers go to the fourth page of a search? What am I missing when Google privileges some information over others, based on a secret recipe that I can only guess at, making decisions about what it thinks I should be seeing? Where might we end up, letting one company be our portal to information, if that company is shaping what it lets us see?