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Next Generation Search Engine Results May Include Profiling

No matter what you may say about it, profiling happens. Police, security forces, military, airport security, and other security officials in the business to judge others for “our protection” do it, whether or not it is legal or “right”. And now Google wants to add profiling to your search engine search results in the near future.

We’ve talked about the methods Google uses to rank pages, but now Google is applying for a patent to include Personalization of placed content ordering in search results, according to Search Engine Journal’s Google Advertising Patents for Behavioral Targeting, Personalization and Profiling and Google Patent – Organic Results Ranked by User Profiling.

This new technique will gather information into the Google database on how you search and what search results you choose from your search results. It stores information about YOU, how you search, what you search for, and what you are most likely to choose when you search, and feeds that into the search results. In other words, Google will now cater to your personal needs when you search.

According to the patent application:

1. A method of personalizing placed content, comprising: determining an interest of a user; accessing a user profile associated with the user; identifying a set of placed content that matches the interest of the user; and ordering the set of placed content in accordance with the user profile.

2. The method of claim 1, wherein the ordering includes assigning a score to each of the set of placed content in accordance with the user profile and a respective bid for the placed content.

3. The method of claim 1, wherein the ordering includes assigning a score to each of the set of placed content in accordance with the user profile and a respective click through rate for the placed content.

4. A method of personalizing placed content associated with a search query, comprising: receiving a search query from a user; accessing a user profile associated with the user; identifying a set of placed content that matches the search query; and ordering the set of placed content in accordance with the user profile.

Is this a good or bad thing? What do you think?

I think that profiling will bring topics I am interested in directly to me, based upon my needs and typical behavior on the web. It will “know” me. I make it clear to all my friends to NEVER send any joke to me unless they know specifically that it matches my twisted sense of humor and that it will make me roll on the floor. I force my friends to “think” about what they know about me and my sense of humor and evaluate if the joke would appeal. I still delete most of the crap they send without looking at it since I can’t stand email jokes, but it does cut down on the junk joke emails.

Still, it works and understanding how I use the web should produce search results related to how I search, right?

I also think that there is more than enough information about me out there – in fact, too much information – so I’m not comfortable having my search habits monitored and used for or against me. I don’t like spyware or adware and I certainly am not a fan of any service that monitors my Internet habits, so why should I embrace Google monitoring my Internet habits? Isn’t this a form of invasion of privacy?

Also, I don’t have a specific habit or style of searching for information. Yes, for this blog I focus on material related to WordPress and I have my specific sources that I visit frequently to keep up with the WordPress news and help keep you informed, too. But my Internet habits are all over the place.

Just this week I searched and read up on repairing a Class C motor home from water damage from leaks. I also looked into travel information regarding Seattle, California, and New Orleans. I dug into some CSS and web page design information for an article I’m working on for you, and even ordered some computer and printer parts and pieces. Oh, I looked up recipes for home made ice cream, read about author Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series and the latest from Alan Dean Foster and Orson Scott Card, checked for the latest release from Keiko Matsui, looked up how to repair a generator carburetor, ordered a new power cable for my trailer, read about the rioting in France, and the 10th anniversary of the Rabin assassination (I was at the last 5 years of anniversaries since it was next door to where I lived), checked on the dates for Hannuka and Thanksgiving, downloaded a new driver for my laptop’s DVD read/writer, and looked up information on medication for my cat. That’s searching all over the place.

What would my profile look like with random searches like that? Would profiling eliminate the little bits and pieces of flotsam I come across that delight me no end during my searches? Or would I only be served the “things I normally eat” on my platter of search engine results?

Where Does the Data Go, Who Gets It, and How Would Searching Change?

I have two other really important concerns. One, where would all this data go and who would have access to it? Two, how would it change my search results?

On the first issue of where would all the data go and who would have access to it, I’m really concerned. This is where some privacy issues come into play.

How would the data be “assigned” uniquely to me? Will I get a Google ID? Will it be saved in my computer so that it only works when I access the web via this computer but not another person’s computer? And what if I’m using a public or another person’s computer? How would Google “know” it is me searching in order to give me my customized, profiled results?

Who would have access to that information and how closely would it be tied to me, my email, my website, and my snail mail address? How could this information be used by advertisers and businesses to target me and my needs?

According to the patent request:

[0039] Optionally, a user may choose to offer personal information 215, including demographic and geographic information associated with the user, such as the user’s age or age range, educational level or range, income level or range, language preferences, marital status, geographic location (e.g., the city, state and country in which the user resides, and possibly also including additional information such as street address, zip code, and telephone area code), cultural background or preferences, or any subset of these. Compared with other types of personal information such as a user’s favorite sports or movies that are often time varying, this personal information is more static and more difficult to infer from the user’s search queries and search results, but may be crucial in correctly interpreting certain queries submitted by the user. For example, if a user submits a query containing “Japanese restaurant”, it is very likely that he may be searching for a local Japanese restaurant for dinner. Without knowing the user’s geographical location, it is hard to order the search results so as to bring to the top those items that are most relevant to the user’s true intention. In certain cases, however, it is possible to infer this information. For example, users often select results associated with a specific region corresponding to where they live.

While I understand the Japanese restaurant search being important geographically, would I only see ads as well as results from businesses with either world-wide chains and local to my area? What information would they “get” and how would they use it?

I also wonder where it will be stored. I imagine huge banks of buildings filled with hard drives containing the entire browsing history and profiling of every one in the world. That’s a lot of storage space. And a lot of vulnerability for breaking in and abusing the stored information.

The second part of my concern is how this change will impact my search results. Sure, like the restaurant example, if I’m looking for a restaurant, what are the odds I’m looking for a restaurant 600 miles away from me. So of course it is part of my habit to automatically add the location to my search keywords so it limits the results to a geographic area. Then again, I travel so much that I’m often looking for a hotel, restaurant, or business more than 600 miles away from me, so if I don’t include the city in my keywords, will it ONLY show me results from the area within 20 miles of where I live automatically?

When I search for RV parts, I’d love to see all results for dealers that don’t have parts excluded from my search results, but using a Boolean search like “RV + parts – dealer” also narrows the field for me automatically. But that kind of search brings up tons of dealers with RV parts, so would my search results change if Google learns that I spend more time searching for RV parts than RV dealers?

So I worry how it will change my results by adding or eliminating my search results based on some profile in which they generically analyze my random searching habits.

What do you think about the use of profiling in search results?

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 12, 2007 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I think what is scaring people when it comes to things like this is the fact that we might realise that we have very limited if any free will and if someone knows enough about us, they can manipulate us to their advantage. We are creatures of habit and it fundamentaly scares us to accept this and therefore have been denying it for centuries. Accepting it would take away any power or illusion of power we have as “individuals”.

    Next time you go and vote, all they have to do is check which issues attracted your attention in your online user profile and focus on them, and they have your vote.

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