Monday, December 15, 2008

Yes, But Do We WANT Personalized Web Search?

Google Inc.'s VP of Search Marissa Meyer is touting "personalized search" as the wave of the future. Sounds good, but what's it all mean? Google's celebrated web search algorithm orders search results based on the cumulative wisdom — well, preference, anyway — of the masses who have already entered the search string, reviewed the results and clicked through to what looks good. Imagine the Internet as a vast woods, with the world's Net users wandering around, breaking the ground cover with their feet. Google's current search model channels people down the well-worn trails: this is most likely the site you're after, because other folks with the same interest went here.

Of course, what I want and what some cobbled-together notion of the Typical Websurfer wants aren't always going to be the same. So Google proposes a further step: tailor Web Search to custom-order search results based on what I, and not the Google Golem, want to see.

As one incremental step toward that Shangri-La of Search, Google has launched "SearchWiki," a product that allows a user to adjust the order of search results per his or her own specifications. Those preferences will be recorded in the user's personal account with Google, for regurgitation at a later date, if the user should re-enter the same search string. Users can also tag their own Wiki-style comments to search results.

Personalized search sounds pretty terrific. It sounds like Google getting even better at what they do than they already are. So hooray. But here's my beef. I think there's something to the notion that we'll be worse off — both individually and as a community — if the 'Net gets so smart that it gives each of us exactly what he/she wants, nothing more or less, all of the time. Distractions and diversions are abundant in this world, and they surely dissipate our energies and make our days less efficient. Take, for example, the television that sits just over my right shoulder as I type right now. It's showing news footage of an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at the President of the United States, and it's completely shattered my concentration. This is a bad thing.

On the other hand, there's news footage on the television, right now, of an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at George W. Bush. Are you kidding me? As distracted as I find myself right now, this television is enriching my life. And I believe there's something to be said for not having complete sovereign control over the information one receives. We hear quite a lot these days about the political polarization of our news sources, and how we all choose to live among and spend time with like-minded people who don't challenge our worldviews. It's socially and intellectually calcifying. Now imagine an Internet that anticipates your needs and meets them completely. I mean, ick, right?

I like the idea that I might be allowed to stumble across something I didn't ask to see, that I might be surprised, that I might see/learn/find something I've never experienced before — and that it might cause me to see the world a bit differently, to grow as a person, to find a capacity for empathy that I didn't know I had. In fact, I think it's important. It's the diversions, the digressions — dare I say it? — the hijackings that enrich our lives. They lure us out of our carved-out personal spaces into the broader community. Take, for example, Gmail, which serves up ads based on keywords I type into emails. This was supposedly creepy — Google's machines reading my emails. But human eyes aren't processing the content of my message: this much is clear from the fact that sponsored links to Human Events and WorldNetDaily often appear after I've sent off a blistering screed to M'dates and V'torix about politics. Anyone who read the message would know Human Events and WorldNetDaily aren't at all up my alley. Clearly the Gmail ad server isn't "smart" enough. But if it were, I wouldn't have the benefit of knowing that these publications exist, that they say such ludicrous and laughable things, and that there are people out there who swear by them. Knowing all this is good for me. It's important.

Do I think SearchWiki is going to destroy communities? Hardly. Google proposes to publish the Wiki commentaries — users can rate, describe, and review sites to one another. This functionality arguably enhances community. And technology that has the simple effect of saving prior search strings seems harmless enough. What I don't like is the down-the-road ideal of search personalization. I don't want a search engine to anticipate my needs perfectly. I want a rough idea of what I am after, delivered alongside other, miles-afield links that carry the potential for great distraction and enlightenment. So much of the joy in life comes in the searching, after all. Just don't make it too easy, Google.

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