By Anne Collier
Google just added to its regular search results the posts, photos, etc. of your social circles, as they appear in Google+ (if you use it), YouTube, and other Google social products*. It’s called “Search, plus Your World.” Even though you and your kids can opt out entirely to get your Google searches back to the general results you’ve always gotten, the move has created a fairly predictable fracas. Some people love it, some hate it. “People do not necessarily want personal information appearing in search results, some said, while other said that Google was unfairly favoring its own social network over competitors like Facebook and Twitter,” according to a New York Times blog. The Gizmodo blog even said it changes the way search works by putting personal (subjective) results before relevancy, or “objective” results – though Google’s top results were always based on the number of people who found them useful. This makes the echo chamber smaller and more front and center, if you let it.
But there’s the key: “if you let it.” First of all, none of this works if you’re not logged in as a Google member, so Google search is basically the same if you aren’t or if you’re logged off. And, as I mentioned above, if you are logged in, Google provides a way to turn it off entirely (my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid explains how in a Forbes blog post). But here’s a great media literacy training opp: You can also see what your search results look like both ways – toggle back and forth between social and regular and compare the two, having a little discussion about the differences. You do this by logging into Google (via Gmail, YouTube, or whatever service), then going to Google search and searching for something. In the upper right-hand corner are two icons: a little globe and a little person. Click on the globe and you hide social search results, click on the person and the results from your social circle are on top.
So I don’t see any need for a big kerfuffle about this. You can always use a different search engine (Gizmodo sees this as a big boon for Bing), but I don’t think there’s much of a downside unless for some reason someone wants there to be. There’s that media-literacy training plus to it (to borrow your “plus,” Google) and – if you’re disconcerted about what Google turns up from your Facebook content, this may be a useful reminder to be less public in Facebook, if so desired. Because Google only turns up what’s public in your or your kids’ Facebook activities.
*Readers, I uploaded this over the US’s holiday weekend and have since learned that I misread the New York Times blog post cited above, by inferring that Facebook and Twitter results would be included in “Search, plus Your World” (see this thorough post from search analyst Phil Bradley in the UK, pointed out to me by Amy Jussel of ShapingYouth.org (thanks, Amy!). I do feel that focusing on activity in its own products in the social part Google’s search results downgrades the quality of its search product overall, if this is what the company’s doing, but I also believe that 1) Internet users have choices and can vote with their keyboards, 2) this is an excellent media literacy lesson, and 3) this may also be a business opportunity for non-promotional Web search.