Goodies are bad, baddies are good
A study that found Google search results vary by user even in private browsing modes has led some to worry that the company is secretly profiling users even when they use ‘Incognito’ mode.
The study found
that even logged out and with privacy modes switched on, search results still varied by user.
Let’s set aside the fact that the study came from DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine with a vested interest in making Google look bad. If there was no way of escaping personalised results, that wouldn’t be a good thing, and it would play into our expectations that all big tech companies are continually out to do evil things with our data.
Now, Google’s record with privacy certainly isn’t perfect. Remember the 'Street View wifi sniffing’ scandal
a few years back? And yes, its business model is built on data collection on a scale few understand. And we probably won’t comprehend the implications of such an enormous stash of data for many decades to come. But the resistance to this business model is often so furious and cynical that it misses some important points.
Having one 'true’ set of search results we should aspire to see would be awful. As Google Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan notes in a Twitter thread worth reading
, an American searching for 'football’ probably wouldn’t want UK Premier League results. If we all got the same results for our searches around the world, we’d quickly get frustrated. Sullivan also says that search results are very rarely 'personalised’ even when you’re logged in.
And then there’s the idea that this mass data collection is done entirely deceptively – sure, companies like Google could be more open about when they collect and how they use it, but I’d wager that most users know it happens and have at least some understand of the tradeoff they’re making.
Get rid of that data collection, and you lose out on some of the incredible things big tech firms can do. Face recognition may be creepy in some situations, but it makes Google Photos a joy to use. Facebook gets lots of justified criticism, but it still connects countless people in undeniably positive ways every day. Uber may have done lots of horrible things, but its ubiquity and convenience are a huge boon for many people.
Technology is nuanced. It can be both good and bad. The good bits for me may be bad in your eyes, and vice-versa. So, our arguments about that technology – and the companies that make it – should be nuanced too.
If you hate Google Search, use DuckDuckGo. But don’t pretend like there aren’t benefits to Google’s approach.