Thursday, 22 November 2012

Search the Engine

A famous guy once said,
And so, my fellows of the Internets: ask not what you can find through your favorite search engine - ask what your search engine finds out about you!
I agree: this is a good question to ask. Since Google serves as most people’s default search engine, let us review what Google learns about you every time you use its search engine:
  • First, Google knows something about what you are interested in by virtue of the fact you are searching for it.
  • If you happen to be logged in to your Google account, the search is tallied against your account.
  • If you are not logged in to your Google account, the search is tallied against your IP address. In many if not most cases, this accounts to effectively recognizing you; perhaps not by name, but that is not necessarily important.
  • Through your IP address, Google can tell quite precisely where you are – enough to pinpoint your house on a map. I suspect locating your smartphone wouldn’t be too hard, even if you’ve disabled its location services.
  • Google’s recently revised [anti] privacy policy means Google can cross reference the inputs it had collected about you. It is thus relatively easy for it to know what your phone number and address are, as well as many other personal details you wouldn’t normally volunteer away (did one of your friends upload a photo of yours to one of Google’s products?).
The next interesting question, if we ignore direct privacy implications such as personal data security for a minute, is: what does Google do with all the data it collects about you? Well, the following are pretty obvious:
  • It targets relevant ads to you. I have to add that given all the information Google has on me, it seems to be doing a pretty awful job targeting ads at me; then again I use ad blockers on my browsers.
  • It tries to assume which answers would be more relevant to you through some propriety ranking and sorts the search results for you.
  • It filters some results it deems altogether unsuitable.
The matter has been documented already (see here), but think about it for a minute: the image of the Internet exposed to you via Google becomes a highly subjective one and quite different from the impartial image most of us have of the Google search engine. We can argue on how truly objective a search engine can be; obviously, none can be truly objective. The thing is that unlike its earlier days, the days during which Google acquired its claim to fame as the best search engine out there, Google is now actively subjective.
I will therefore ask: do we want our Internet search engine to be actively subjective? I don’t know about you, but most of the time I would answer with a “no”; most of the time I would like to be the judge of my search results, and if I do want them to be subjective then I want to control that subjectivity myself (e.g., by limiting the search to Australian websites).
I miss the days when Google was more reflective of the true nature of the Internet. I am therefore asking myself whether I am willing to pay the price for this subjective search in the first place, namely am I willing to sacrifice my privacy and endanger it on the altar of a Google search? Is the sacrifice worthwhile when I do not want its alleged benefits in the first place?
I can think of exceptions, but generally speaking I will confidently answer this last question with a resounding NO. Which brings me to the subject of alternative search engines, and I don’t mean Bing or Yahoo that are no angels in their own rights. I am referring to the emerging search engine that is the carries the objective and unobtrusive banner on its mast, DuckDuckGo.
By now DuckDuckGo serves as the default search engine on my PC/Linux/Mac browsers, while the DuckDuckGo app has been installed on my iPhone and my iPad. I like it a lot: I like the variety of search results this search engine retrieves, I like the way the results are grouped, I like the astonishingly simple mechanism DuckDuckGo allows me to maintain my search preferences with, I like the fact it allows me to run a Google search when I find it lacking, and most of all I like the lack of tracking. I will admit, though, that occasionally this search engine’s inferiority to Google is well felt: to start with, it feels this way in its inability to guess what I’m searching for and its inability to correct my grosser spelling mistakes.
But if you really feel that you just must, Google is only a page away.

Image: DuckDuckGo

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