Google's personal-touch reach gets spotlight in DuckDuckGo study

Google's personal-touch reach gets spotlight in DuckDuckGo study
Credit: DuckDuckGo

Google Chrome Help tells visitors that "When you browse privately, other people who use the device won't see your activity. Chrome doesn't save your browsing history or information entered in forms. Cookies and site data are remembered while you're browsing, but deleted when you exit Incognito mode." But then it says "Incognito mode stops Chrome from saving your browsing activity. Your activity might still be visible to: Websites you visit, including the ads and resources used on those sites Your employer, school, or whoever runs the network you're using. Your internet service provider."

Hnh? A new study says Google likes getting personal even when you are on the hush-hush Incognito page. Reading through the study findings, we cannot blame you if you conclude that you may as well be a superstar thinking big sunglasses will fool the paps from chasing you at the airport.

The DuckDuckGo study is titled "Measuring the "Filter Bubble": How Google is influencing what you click." Here, Natasha Lomas in TechCrunch looked at the study findings. "DDG reckons it's not possible even for logged out users of Google , who are also browsing in Incognito mode, to prevent their online activity from being used by Google to program—and thus shape—the results they see."

Ben Schoon in 9to5Google said that "To summarize the results, every single test delivered mainly unique results with each keyword regardless of where it was searched."

"Most people saw results unique to them, even when logged out and in private browsing mode," said one study finding.

Hold it right there? If I am browsing in Incognito mode, it does not prevent online activity from being used by Google to shape results? "Private browsing mode and being logged out of Google offered very little filter bubble protection. These tactics simply do not provide the anonymity most people expect. In fact, it's simply not possible to use Google search and avoid its filter bubble."

The study authors said their findings were based on a study of individuals "entering identical search terms at the same time." Most participants saw results unique to them, they found, and discrepancies could not be explained by changes in location, time, by being logged in to Google, or by Google testing algorithm changes to a small subset of users.

Wait, what is a filter bubble? DuckDuckGo described a "filter bubble" problem as "the manipulation of your search results based on your personal data."

Links are moved up or down or added to your Google search results, necessitating the filtering of other search results altogether, said DDG. Think "editorialized results" informed by the personal information Google has on you, e.g., search, browsing, purchase history, putting you "in a bubble based on what Google's algorithms think you're most likely to click on."

Ivan Mehta, The Next Web, quoted DuckDuckGo: "We often hear of confusion that private browsing mode enables anonymity on the web, but this finding demonstrates that Google tailors search results regardless of browsing mode. People should not be lulled into a false sense of security that so-called 'incognito' mode makes them anonymous."

On the other hand, people should also note that DuckDuckGo is interested in increasing awareness that it champions privacy. DuckDuckGo is an online search engine platform. Its own brand image is as "an Internet search engine that emphasizes protecting searchers' privacy and avoiding the filter bubble of personalized search results," according to a description in Wikipedia.

DuckDuckGo distinguishes itself from other search engines by not profiling its users. DuckDuckGo traffic has been exploding and it's not a coincidence, said Forbes back in October, noting concern in general over surveillance and privacy.

Ivan Mehta: "While DuckDuckGo's findings shed some light on some of the flaws in Google search results, we might want to take a competitor's conclusion with a pinch of salt."

To be sure, Google spoke about the study and, according to reports, why it was flawed. Google provided a statement to 9to5Google. In short, Google saw the study as flawed citing time and location as factors that could have further affected the results.

"This study's methodology and conclusions are flawed since they are based on the assumption that any difference in search results are based on personalization. That is simply not true. In fact, there are a number of factors that can lead to slight differences, including time and location, which this study doesn't appear to have controlled for effectively."

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User comments

Dec 06, 2018
DDG seems to be more effective at searching these days exactly because it doesn't try to be too clever about it. It just gives you the results. Sometimes when DDG doesn't find it, I go to Google and after getting through all the consent-to-be-spied-on forms, it just gets me irrelevant results.

Another thing is, Google's search hides the target URL behind it's own tracking URL that wraps the original address, so you can't just copy&paste the link you found. You get a long string of useless garbage. Likewise, their image search hides the URL of the image you're searching, forcing you to follow the top level link to the site that contains it, through the tracking URL again, which usually puts you on some Pinterest-like site that is trying to extort you to log in before showing anything, so the image search too is becoming useless.

Dec 06, 2018
And, the only way to "opt out" of being tracked by Google Analytics on about 50% of all the websites out there, is to install a browser add-on by Google, which tags your browser with a unique identifier and allows Google to track your online activity anyhow. You opt out by opting in.

In fact, there are a number of factors that can lead to slight differences, including time and location

Unless you're searching for something time and location sensitive like the local bus tables or restaurant opening hours, those two should not have any effect on the results. If Google's algorithms return different results based on time and location in general, that's just an admission that they're trying to filter-bubble people by controlling what information they are exposed to.

Dec 07, 2018
Google is flat out lying here, correcting for location and time was definitely done.

From the linked article (Measuring the "Filter Bubble": How Google is influencing what you click):
"Results within the news and videos infoboxes also varied significantly. Even though people searched at the same time, people were shown different sources, even after accounting for location."

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