Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of York's online course, Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society. Join the course to learn more.

The filter bubble

If you google “cat” and I google “cat”, will we get the same results?

Probably not.

We’ll likely get similar results, but there will be differences. You might even find differences on your own computer, using different browsers or trying different privacy options. What’s going on?

[Note: in this article we’ll talk about Google a lot. Other internet search engines are available and many will behave in a similar way. We’ll use Google on the grounds of dominance and our own factual accuracy, but these principles apply more widely.]

Google wants to please you. It wants to give you what you’re after. That’s its whole raison d’etre. To give you relevant results it applies elaborate algorithms. At the simplest level, a search engine will take your search terms and will find web pages that contain those terms. It might be that the engine ranks pages with two instances of a term higher than pages with one instance of a term, and pages with three instances higher than pages with two. It could favour pages where the term appears in the page title or headers. The number of links pointing to a page will probably be important, too, as might the number of times people have clicked on that result in previous searches.

But other ingredients are going into the algorithms as well. For a start, Google knows where you live (or at least where your internet service provider lives): it can see the IP address through which you’re connecting to the internet, and can map it against an internet registry to determine your approximate geographical location. It can then favour results in your country or locality. At the University of York, we might expect to see more results about the UK, England, Yorkshire, and York than someone searching from York University in Canada. And because Google knows that our IP address relates to a University, it also has a tendency to favour results of a more academic nature than if we were searching from somewhere else in the city.

Google also uses cookies and session data to track your recent searches, and if you’re logged into your Google account it will keep a log of your browsing activity to get an idea of the types of things you’re interested in. It will then use this information to tailor its results to those interests. So, if I’m constantly searching for information about computed axial tomography, construction equipment, enzymes, Turkish geography, Red Dwarf, Cat Deeley, or dogs, I might find I get very different results when I’m logged into Google than someone who is mostly searching for gifs of kittens. This personalised approach to searching can be very useful but it has its drawbacks: the minute I really need to find a really good picture of a kitten, I could find that I’m at a disadvantage. My personalised search may prove to be so personalised that I find myself in a “filter bubble”. The classic example is of two friends googling BP, one of whom got a set of links about investment opportunities while the other got information about an oil spill. The problem with Google giving you what it thinks you want is that it somewhat reduces your horizons, and may even get in the way of your search when you happen to be looking for something outside of your usual sphere of interests. You might therefore find it useful to log out of Google when you’re searching outside your usual area of interests or looking for a balanced range of results.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society

University of York