April 20, 2018

Google Up Close and Personal

I’ve known for quite a while that Google search results are personally tailored, but it wasn’t until Google Instant came out that I discovered just how much.

It happened when I did a vanity search, to see how many characters it would take before my page sifted to the top. For me, it only took “roy te” for my web site to be the top hit. But that was for me. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that a hair salon filled the page of results for everyone else.

So that sent me on a quest to purge all knowledge Google might have of me, or what I liked in the past, in order to recreate the experience that everyone else would have. Little did I know how difficult and unsatisfying that would be.

First I deleted my history with Google. Earlier I had stopped Google from collecting it, but this time I deleted it, or at least did what Google depicts as deleting it. Then I logged out of my Google account. No dice, my page still sifted to the top.

Then I turned off personalized search results. Still no dice.

I started up a different browser and removed all my cookies. All of them. My page still floated to the top.

I tried a different computer at work, that I doubt I have ever in my life used. No change.

I’m left with the IP address, and it turns out that is indeed what Google retains. And despite their assurances that an IP address is only generally useful, I find it hard to believe that most people in the San Francisco Bay Area get my web page as the top hit for a search of “roy te”.

The fact remains that I did everything a halfway savvy web user could think to do to “anonymize” oneself (I couldn’t use the web services that allow you to surf the web anonymously, as they break the Javascript that Google uses), and Google still knew me.

As Danny Sullivan wrote when Google announced personalized search results: “The days of “normal” search results that everyone sees are now totally, utterly over. Personalized results are the “new normal,” and the change is going to shift the search world and society in general in unpredictable ways.” Google is in our face — deeply, all the time, and in ways that we utterly cannot control. What, exactly, is Google’s definition of evil?

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. So I have to wonder — if this is the expectation of users using the big commercial search engines, can we ever satisfy library users with relevance ranking algorithms that don’t track and factor in every other search that user has done and result that s/he clicked on?

  2. I get a local auctioneer “specializing in construction, municipal, farm and commercial auctions. Includes upcoming auctions and services” for “roy te” so I assume that Google is also using the IP to determine location, which isn’t surprising since they definitely return different results in different countries.

    I guess the question is, does this, in the end, make an overall better experience. I don’t know the answer to that.

    I do know I have to type just about my whole name to get results about me. Maybe I need to do more vanity searches!

  3. This has been going on for ages. A few years ago, I was helping a colleague with screenshots for a book on searching he was working on. He had a clear idea of what he wanted, but it did not show up the same way on my computer in the next office.

    It really depends on the experience you’re looking for. It’s really handy to be out and about and get the local results I’m looking for, rather than the mexican restaurant of the same name across the country. You could take Eric Schmidt’s suggestion and change your name to something not associated with anyone else. At least you don’t have an extremely common name!

    But search is a rapidly changing field – even if you do the same search on the same computer two days in a row, you may get different results, thanks to those algorithms.

  4. Oddly enough, I get Elizabeth Royte for everything on the first page– I think they’ve figured out that I occasionally make typos.

  5. You came on 2nd on a google search for “roy te”

  6. >I find it hard to believe that most people
    >in the San Francisco Bay Area gets my web page
    >as the top hit for a search of “roy te”.

    Roy, your site is at the top of the results in this part of the Bay Area, Maybe your SEO is powerful! :-)

  7. Roy – thanks for this fine article. In an LJ commentary published in June I suggested libraries have a role to play in educating the public about data exchanged online and how it is used. You’ve done just what I was envisioning.

    I think the public needs and would appreciate it. I sure do.

    Link to LJ commentary: http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/home/885152-264/commentary_from_radical_patron_learning.html.csp

  8. Did you try the local public library? The original anonymizer. ;)

    Or maybe not, once you’ve been there. As a reference librarian in a public library I used to have a lot of fun seeing the “recommendations” from Amazon (we used Amazon a lot to figure out what book a patron was really looking for)

  9. VERY interesting, thanks.

    Peter: the expectation of users is that they get ‘good’ search results. They don’t neccesarily know or care that they are ‘personal’, in general — most users probably don’t know the extent Google goes to track you, and might even be disturbed if they found out.

    Can we have search results as good as users will demand (after getting used to how good the big players can provide) without personalization? Without technology that is way outside our resources to provide currently? I don’t know — but currently most of our search results are SO bad, that there’s LOTS of room to improve them greatly in between ‘us’ and ‘Google’. So I’m not going to worry if we can be ‘as good as google’, we can _definitely_ be a LOT lot better than we are now, and working to get there, we’ll develop our expertise at getting even better. When we reach a limit, and evidence shows users still aren’t as satisfied as we’d like them to be, worry about then is what I figure.

  10. An “Instant” Google search for “roy te” listed you as third for me, Roy. First was the Japanese hair salon, second was the auctioneer. 99% of my Google searches are done from the “advanced search” page…

  11. I get Roy Terry Fireplaces, in Colchester, Essex. I’m in Leeds, W. Yorks.


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