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October 30, 2014
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Did Google Just Ruin Googling?
A new feature from the search giant threatens to undermine the credibility of its core product.

In a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, then go ahead and fix it because you’re afraid of Facebook’s increasing ubiquity,” it seems Google has gone and mucked around with their flagship search business – and this time the tweaks have people more than a little nervous.

Yesterday, the search giant announced a new feature called Your World, which uses your online social life to give you more personalized results. In addition to helping you find things on Google+, the company’s underrated social network, it also injects things your friends have shared into your searches. Look for “tacos” or “baby sloths” and you’ll not only get your regular results, but also anything taco- and sloth-related that your friends have shared or promoted.

It’s likely your by-now highly attuned “woah, this is creepy” alarm is going off, and it’s probably right to. But the feature is arguably quite useful. If Google’s famously accurate search engine is the best because of its kinda-sorta-neutrality, that very same logic can also be occasionally frustrating when it won’t give you what you’re looking for. If information glut is an increasing problem, filtering based on our social network has a pretty clear benefit: our friends and family are a much better metric of our interests than software is.

At the same time, what’s especially galling about this move is the way Google is tweaking their results to highlight their own services. It’s not as if Facebook shares or likes are going to pop up after a search; it’s Google+ only. Twitter yesterday publicly decried the changes as “bad for the internet,” and Google responded with something that sounded eerily like a public shakedown (Twitter ended its search deal with Google last year).

It’s unsettling when companies with an immense amount of control over our digital lives use that power to very clearly defend their own interests, even if they are providing some users with a net benefit. Yes, it is an option that can be toggled on and off. And yes it’s true, as I argued recently, that countering the negative effects of the web requires some work on our part. Personalization isn’t the end of the democratization of knowledge, because just as we learned to use baffling library systems, we also need to learn how to use the web intelligently, too.

But the more perplexing issue is that ultimately our access to the internet is almost exclusively available to us through private enterprise. While those companies live and die by giving consumers what they want, on a medium as new as the web, we aren’t always sure what that is or what other options are out there. It’s not hard to imagine a generation of kids who just assume that web searches come with personalization. The question now is how a company with a history of privacy goofs will respond to the increasing backlash: by doubling down, as Eric Schmidt seemed to, or by recognizing that for a lot of their users, something isn’t right about this.

Navneet Alang is Toronto Standard’s tech critic. You can follow him on Twitter @navalang.

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