Free range or filtered search? The debate heats up

These days when you hunt for something online, Google and co. tailor the results according to your search  and click history.

We tend to click on stuff we like, approve of, enjoy and are familiar with. Search engines assume we want more of the same, which has its advantages. But the downsides are clear. Personalised search means we’re being deprived of potentially interesting stuff because it’s demoted and we never see it. We risk being deluged with so much of the same kind of stuff that we’ll soon get stale, bored and frustrated.

Facebook does it too, applying invisible algorithmic editing to what we see. As does Ebay, which recently provided a case in point. I donate every time I buy something and Ebay throws up an animal charity button during the process. Fine so far. But when they started tailoring the ads that appear next to my Ebay searches to animal charities I disabled the targeting straight away.

How come? Having to scroll past a steady stream of charity banner ads showing horrific images of animal cruelty was sickening. So despite Ebay’s best efforts it was an example of targeting gone wrong. I still give to animal charities. But there’s no way I’ll authorise Ebay to tailor ads for me again.

Is search personalisation a bad thing?

Are we missing out on the richness and variety of information online because search engines and so on filter it so heavily… and so heavy handedly? It’s a hot debate right now and the jury’s still out. But if I was God of Google I’d give people the choice of switching filtering on or off. And I’d be very wary of making sweeping generalisations and assumptions. We humans don’t work logically like algorithms. We’re natural explorers – we enjoy roaming free-range.