Google’s ‘Web History’ - Tailored to fit or exclude, is the question
Google has launched 'Web History', the new name for its personalised search feature, by default across its user base. Essentially, by monitoring what you click on in their results, Google can learn what sites you like and give them a ranking boost in your search results. This adds a further dimension to how Google ranks sites and pages, which had historically focussed largely on analysing on-page relevancy and third party links pointing into a site. Some of the advantages and disadvantages this will bring. For example in the case of the enterprise, new entrants online will find it more difficult to break into Google page 1 results if the sites a user has visited before have been given a preferential boost. On the other hand, for those firms that customers like, Google's 'Web History' will enhance their ability to cross-sell new products far more effectively. It also calls into question just how informed a decision consumers might make given that it could be argued Google's 'Web History' might inadvertently restrict the breadth of sites delivered to them.
• Google's results will contain more of what you like. It will be tailored to fit in with how you typically interact online. As such a searcher should find what they are looking for faster and be more satisfied with the results. The ordinary searcher will theoretically come to think of Google as delivering better results
• This opens up the future possibility for sites to receive a boost in a searcher's results if their friends like a site. Whilst this isn't happening right now, this would be entirely possible and make search 'social' for the first time. Imagine searching for 'restaurants' in Google and being presented with restaurants that your friends really like and therefore essentially recommend
• Allows companies which consumers really like to cross-sell their new products far more effectively as they will appear higher up for searches the consumer makes for things that they weren't aware the firm offered
• This might restrict the breadth of sites that are delivered to the user leading searchers to only see sources of information that they typically agree with, which deals with cognitive dissonance in a detrimental way for society at large. Consider how this might affect search results for Barack Obama if he searched for 'health care reform' or Al Gore if he searched for 'climate change'. One of the great benefits of the Internet was that it would allow for a multitude of sites to be presented to a user, broadening his/her horizons and forcing him/her to question their positions and beliefs. Search, philosophically at least, should accentuate that and not diminish it.
• Small businesses that aren't as well known as the bigger brands won't be clicked on as much and won't then get the opportunity to appear in results for future searches
• New entrants into a market would find it more difficult to break into your Page 1 results if sites the user has visited before have been given a preferential boost
• Many will have privacy concerns if Google is collecting and using this much browsing information. This is an opt-out however, which should go at least some way to alleviating some concern
Much of the above will depend on how aggressively the Google's Web History functionality is implemented. For example, many of the above concerns would be alleviated and perhaps entirely dispelled if only 1 listing out of 10 in a search results page was boosted based on one's web history. Conversely, too few listings boosted in rankings may well negate the value of the innovation entirely. To determine this, we at Greenlight will be analysing how Web History behaves going forward.