The filter bubble
If you google “cat” and I google “cat”, will we get the same results?
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.
© University of York (author: Stephanie Jesper)