Google may be influencing your online behavior by altering search results

Google may be influencing your online behavior by altering search results
It's no secret that Google is creating highly customized data profiles for every user, by keeping track of their web searches, location, and other parameters that are then used to create a digital fingerprint of sorts, which is unique for every user. The company recently came under fire over its questionable location tracking practices with an Associated Press report shedding light on how Google tracks user location even with the "Location History" feature turned off.

Unfortunately, this may also be a trend in other Google services, specifically Search, a new study by Google competitor DuckDuckGo suggests. What's more, the findings also show that Google may be using the collected data to surface customized search results, even when the user is logged out of their Google account or using Incognito mode.

The study, titled Measuring the "Filter Bubble": How Google is influencing what you click, was conducted in June of this year, during the midterm elections, with the goal of finding out whether Google is filtering the information on a per-user basis, depending on their past behavior online. In other words, whether Google is simply showing people what they want to see.

As The Verge notes, DuckDuckGo is obviously a biased source, being a major Google competitor that takes pride in its handling of user data, but the findings of the study are still worth a closer look.

Diagram showing how search result layouts vary between users for identical searches

The study found that different participants will see different results when searching for terms like "gun control" and "immigration." What's more, almost identical results appeared to respective participants, even when they were logged out of their Google accounts or using the browser's Incognito mode. This suggests that Google is tracking and targeting users with customized information at all times.

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The study found that there were significant discrepancies between what news sources were shown to different users for identical searches, and how identical items were positioned in the results. You may not think that the same page being two or three positions lower in a certain search may not be a big deal, but studies have consistently shown that people are most likely to interract with the top three Google search results the vast majority of the time. For example, significant variations in the layout of news articles and videos were discovered for search terms like "vaccinations."

Google has gone on record to state that personalization is done a "small fraction" of search queries, in order to determine a better context for the search. The company, however, did confirm whether this sort of personalization is also applied to Incognito searches.

Diagram showing significant variations between search results for different users

“We saw that when randomly comparing people’s private modes to each other, there was more than double the variation than when comparing someone’s private mode to their normal mode,” the study claims. The data suggests that there is negligible difference in search results for the same user, independent of whether they are logged in with a Google account or using Incognito browsing mode, while results for identical searches vary three to five times between different users.

Google claims that all of its elaborate data collection is only so it can serve users better. Although the custom-tailored experiences that Google services offer are often times very useful, significantly altering web search results, based on who is doing the search, may be a step in the wrong direction. Furthermore, most users are in the dark as to how exactly all of this is done. With layers of AI-powered algorithms, constantly changing and shaping our digital fingerprints, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell to what extent our current actions online are going to influence our web searches tomorrow.

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