/ Technology

Facebook feeds & Google search – do you see what I see?

Facebook with magnifying glass

Do you ever get the feeling that the internet is getting to know you? Well, it’s not your imagination – technology is personalising more of the things we see online. But do you notice it happening?

The first thing that springs to mind when I think of personalisation is ‘Google’. Not only does the monolithic search engine display ads while I’m looking at my email (it once showed me an advert offering relationship counselling when I made a joke to my Mum about her husband), it also personalises some of the results that come through when I perform a search.

Some of this personalisation is obvious, and useful. For instance, if I search ‘Japanese restaurant’, I don’t want to see the most popular restaurant in the UK – just a list of the nearest ones. But are there other means of personalisation that are slightly less obvious?

We’ve talked before about the ‘filter bubble’ – the worrying idea that, as Google results become more personalised, you’ll end up seeing things that only serve to confirm what you already know.

Where have all my Facebook friends gone?

It’s not just Google, though – Facebook’s personalisation is more immediate, and not overtly obvious to the average user. Part of my job involves updating the Which? Facebook page and, recently, there’s been a curious dip in the number of people who see our posts. So why is this? People haven’t ‘unliked’ us, nor have they all simultaneously abandoned Facebook.

The reason is that Facebook is working harder to filter and target the information you see. If it thinks you won’t interact with something (click it, ‘like’ it, share it, etc) then it may decide not to show it to you at all. This is great news if you don’t want to hear too much from your talkative cousin who only posts pictures of her dinner – but very bad news if you’re wondering where your friend Tom is.

You like seeing Tom’s updates, but don’t often ‘like’ his posts because you don’t see the need to. He hasn’t disappeared from your life, but he may well have disappeared from your Facebook timeline, because Facebook doesn’t know how important he is to you.

How do I fix this problem?

If you’re worried about missing out on Facebook updates (especially if you like the Which? page!) you can solve the problem by regularly clicking, liking, or sharing posts of the people or pages you care about most. Or if you prefer, you can simply hover your mouse over the ‘cog’ symbol on a page and click ‘add to interest lists’.

On Google, to receive depersonalised results, you can add “&pws=0” to the end of the search url once you’ve performed the search. But in the longer term, what can we do about over-personalisation?

My worry isn’t that things are becoming more personalised, but rather that a lot of this personalisation is being done without us being fully aware of it. Did you know about these personalisation updates? Do you welcome the more tailored service, or do you wish you’d been told about it in advance?

Comments
Member

I think I have a good idea of what Google and I do my best to ignore tailored suggestions, much in the same way that I have never bought anything as a result of unsolicited phone calls or doorstop sellers.

Thanks for the information about how to do a depersonalised search.

Member

I’ve found myself checking on numerous occasions whether someone I haven’t heard from in a while has deleted me on Facebook, only then to realise that Facebook simply aren’t showing me their updates. I find it annoying. It’s forcing you to interact when some people just prefer to observe (not as creepy as it sounds!)
I find personalisation of the internet in general much more worrying. As I work for Which? Gardening, it’s slightly offputting when I go onto Amazon or Google to search for a birthday present and am presented with ‘our best selling leaf blowers…’ I don’t think my niece would be too thrilled if I bought her one of those for her 7th birthday…

Member

I have a LinkedIn account and every week it sends me suggestions for LinkedIn groups that it thinks I should join. It regularly suggests a group for ex-employees of my current workplace. This gives me the creeps: does LinkedIn know something I don’t?

Member
Al Sithy says:
12 February 2013

Going ‘incognito’ with Google (when you want a more private browsing session without being tracked by unwanted third party adverts) could not be easier … Just hold down the Ctrl+Shift+N keys together before searching, and then this simple action will then provide you with privacy on that page.

Member

I think this applies only to the Google Chrome browser.