With little fanfare Google has just introduced "personalised search" ( personalized search if your from the US) for people using the Google search engine - even for users who don't have Google accounts or have one and aren't logged in. What's more you may not even realise that you are getting personalised results or see any obvious way to turn them off. But isn't personalised search a good thing I hear you say - my results will be more relevant to me! Hmm - well lets just consider the downside for a bit.
One of the joys of the Internet has always been surfing - the joy of doing a search on Google and then trawling through the results and perhaps coming across new gems of websites that you haven't come across before. Increasingly with personalised search you will start to see the same results that you have seen previously - you'll need to dig deeper to start seeing fresh stuff. Google holds your search pattern data for up to 180 days so what you see will reflect what you have already been looking at in that period.
Another problem is that search results reflect , in general terms, the popularity and relevance of websites and pages to a particular search term. But if my results are as much influenced by my previous searches as they are by these factors then how do I have any sense whether what I am seeing in the results is reflecting the most relevant sites or whether it is simply a reflection of my previous search behaviour?
Then of course there is the whole issue of only hearing what you want to hear. I suspect I am not alone in reading a much wider range of sources of news and information as a result of the Internet and in particle the use of Google and its news results. This exposes me to people and arguments from all sorts of points of view.
I don't end up going onto the Internet solely to confirm my existing source of knowledge and my existing prejudices. I would never typically buy the Telegraph newspaper for example. But since using Google news I do occasionally read their articles and now and then have bought the paper. But this won't happen with personalised results - the papers and news sources I read most will come to the top and I'll simply end up reading them more and more often. If we all do this the debate and exchange of ideas that is the joy of the Internet will be much curtailed.
Then of course there is the possibility for downright manipulation of our behaviour and thinking. Google is a private company and beholden to no one really. What if some political party manages to persuade the company in the future to deliver particular results to people whose search behaviour indicates particular political preferences. There are very serious possibilities for manipulation here.
The strength of the Internet has always been its universality coupled with the ability to drill down to things that are specific to your needs. That is that way that the Internet should continue to work.
If this model is stood on its head and we all start in our little boxes and have to look for links to turn off the personalised feature then many people will simply stay in their little boxes and never venture out. We would all be the poorer for that and the dialogue across barriers of belief , race, religion and nationality that the present approach encourages may one day disappear completely. Do we really want an Internet that will become so atomised and fragmented?