Genii Weblog

Is Google doctoring results?

Mon 13 Feb 2006, 08:41 PM

by Ben Langhinrichs
While I have long had tremendous respect for Google and its innovative thinking, there are times I worry that we are all coming to rely very heavily on information that is served up at the whim of a single company.  There is an implied trust that Google is not stacking the deck, except in the sponsored links which are perforce stacked and obvious.  Pure search results are supposed to be retrieved based on independent algorithms and not "managed" in any way.  But is this true?

Devin Olson posted an intriguing story called Google Search Results differ between browsers in which he found very different results between a search for Lotus Notes Fiscal Year Formula between Firefox, Netscape and Internet Explorer.  In both Firefox and Netscape, the very first result for this search was Devin's site Spanky's Place.  In Internet Explorer, his site was not mentioned until the 21st page.  I read these results, and wondered a bit.  I tried the search myself, and got the same exact results in both browsers, neither one showing Spank's Place on any of the first few pages.

Which leads me to a different conclusion.  I think Google may be "noticing" the bookmarks or history or cookies, something on the local machine, and then doctoring the results to make the results show hits on those pages.  Maybe that is even a clever way of making results more "relevant" to the individual.  But if Google really does this, how do we know when we can trust the search results?  How do we know when our site is really showing up on top of the search engines, and when it is only showing up that way for us?  Think beyond our own sites.  How do we know that Lotus Notes pages which are mentioned a lot in blogs we read and pages we visit are not showing up more on our searches than on others?  How do we know that if we read a bunch of conservative blogs, our search results won't be skewed in that way?

And if the results are being skewed according to personal criteria, how do we know that more subtle doctoring isn't going on?  What if our income profile and location, both relatively easy to find out these days, are being used to skew the results to reinforce particular points of view?  We just have no way of knowing.  When I search for the word "doclinks" on my home computer, this blog shows up within the first few hits on both Firefox and Internet Explorer.  Same thing for both browsers on my laptop.  But what is interesting is what else shows up.  On one browsers on one machine, there are a couple of different site that show up consistently, but the same browser on a different machine shows different sites in those positions.  There is also an inconsistency in the number of results reported.

Still feeling quite so confident relying on Google for impartial results?  I'm not.  I might even be tempted to start looking at Yahoo and other search engines, although I have not tested to see if they are equally inconsistent.  What do you think?

Update: It appears that some of the inconsistency, although not all, is due to slightly different results depending on whether Safe Search is set to No restriction or Medium Restriction, and whether the google search comes from the button bar or the full Google screen.  This still does not seem to account for everything, and I have no idea why the button bar search would be different, but some of the results clearly are attributable to different settings.

Copyright 2006 Genii Software Ltd.

What has been said:

434.1. Devin Olson
(02/13/2006 08:53 PM)

I tried the [b]doclinks[/b] search myself, and had some interesting results as well. Check my site for details.

Are the varying results intentional on the part of Google? At this point, I don't want to think so. But I am now very curious as to [i]why[/i] the results are coming up the way that they are.

Incidentally, if I search for [i]Lotus Notes Fiscal Year Formula[/i] now, out of 58,400 results, my site is [b]not[/b] listed at all.

So much for ego surfing.



434.2. Nathan T. Freeman
(02/14/2006 01:28 AM)

When I set my preferences to be identical on two different browsers (Firefox & IE), and perform that search, the results are identical, whether done from Google's home page or from the built-in search bar.

And Devin's site is the first entry.

Google's getting a lot of flack lately from all corners. I think you might be chasing a ghost here, Ben.

434.3. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/14/2006 03:56 AM)

Nathan - It hardly makes me feel better to read your comment directly after Devin's (above).

434.4. Nick Goddard
(16/02/2006 04:38)

I seem to remember reading an article which talked about google remembering your previous searches and then basing new searches with these old ones in mind. Sorry but can't remember where I read this and therfore can't gaurantee that this is correct


434.5. Ben's daughter
(02/16/2006 05:12 AM)

I brought this up in a conversation with other kids here at college. What scared me was not that they had experienced this same issue (which most had), but that everyone seemed to take it as a given. Although one or two people did wonder about what the results would be like for some of their common searches if they weren't on that same computer, for the most part people seemed to think that google did a pretty good job of matching you with the information you wanted, regardless of how it was done.

Just thought you might enjoy a different perspective from a slightly different audience.