The secret way Google costs you money
What's a Google filter bubble and how does it trap you? Donna Ferguson examines the secret way your searches could be costing you money.
Ever heard of a ‘filter bubble’? If you think it sounds like something only a car mechanic would need to know about, or some kind of snazzy bath gel, I don’t blame you. But it’s actually a lot more sinister – and it affects almost everyone who uses the internet.
So even though you might not have heard of a filter bubble, you’ve almost certainly come across one. In fact, you’ve probably made decisions while trapped in one. At the time, you probably thought what you were experiencing was perfectly innocuous, perhaps even helpful... but delve beneath the surface and you could find that - as well as messing with your head – filter bubbles could be costing you money.
What is a filter bubble?
The term ‘filter bubble’ was coined earlier this year by the author Eli Pariser to describe the way that, nowadays, websites like Google and Facebook use information they have gleaned about you as an individual – for example, using ‘signals’ like your previous searches, results you’ve clicked on in the past, websites you’ve visited before – to provide you with ‘personalised’ search or news feed results.
As you might expect, there are complex algorithms at work here. For example, according to Pariser, there are as many as 57 different signals that Google uses to personally tailor your search results. Sure, each individual signal only gives Google a small amount of information about you, but this company has data from millions and millions of users at its virtual fingertips. And each time you use its service, it learns more about you.
Once it is able to draw different conclusions about us, it will start to show us different things – things the Google computer programmers who wrote those algorithms have decided that each of us, individually, should see.
Has the web, that one source of information we all thought no one could ever completely control, just become confined to the narrow bits and pieces of information that random boffins are allowing us to look at?
There is no standard Google anymore
Before we get carried away, let’s look at how filter bubbles actually work in practice. If you and I do a search for exactly the same thing on Google, yes, we may find we are shown completely different search results due to the way that Google has been tracking and monitoring our individual web behaviour. But so what? What impact can a filter bubble actually have on our lives?
In this video, Eli Pariser gives an example, describing how different search results were presented to two of his friends who searched for ‘Egypt’ on Google at the time of the protests. One friend, Scott, was shown news results about the widespread unrest. The other, Daniel, was shown information about travel and vacations – he didn’t get anything about the protests in Egypt at all.
For Eli Pariser, this had all sorts of sinister political and social implications about the way that information is being, effectively, censored by Google in the name of ‘relevance’. But I’m concerned about the practical implications. As someone interested in personal finance, it immediately made me think: what if both of them had been considering a holiday in Egypt?
Daniel might have gone ahead and booked a flight, while Scott would have steered clear. This could potentially have left Daniel seriously out of pocket if he’d then found out about the situation and decided not to go.
My own experiences
This isn’t the only way that filter bubbles could potentially cost you – and save you – money. Here’s some more that I have discovered, just through my own experiences. (If you’ve discovered anything similar, please share your experiences using the comments box below.)
I did a search for ‘newborn baby essentials’. On my home browser, where Google knows me best, helpful forums like babycentre.co.uk and the NHS website came highest for me. Both are sites I have visited recently. But if I conducted the exact same search on another browser, where I’d cleared all my cookies, then John Lewis came top instead.
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What if it had been the other way around? What if the NHS would be top on a non-personalised Google search, but I was a frequent visitor to the John Lewis website - would that push the shop higher up the search rankings, beating the NHS as a source of ‘relevant’ information on baby essentials? I can't be sure, but it seems likely.
Delving into the results, I note that John Lewis lists 14 ‘essentials’ you must buy for your baby, babycentre.co.uk lists only seven and the NHS website doesn’t suggest that a single product is ‘essential’ for your baby, apart from – you guessed it – nappies! You don’t have to be a genius to work out which site will end up costing an expectant mother more money.
Similarly, I recently conducted a search for a ‘tulip table’. In my case, as I’m a frequent visitor to bargain websites and freecycle, a result from second-hand furniture website preloved.com came high up in my results. But when I conducted the same search on another browser, where Google doesn’t know me so well, the result from preloved.com was nowhere to be seen – expensive shops had taken its place!
Shouldn’t I be thanking Google?
Ironically, in both these examples, you could argue that filter bubbles actually saved me money, because I’m a thrifty person and I steer clear of expensive shops online. Therefore, my personalised Google results showed me sites that would save me money, not cost me more than average.
But I don’t like the idea that these bubbles exist. After all, I have no idea whether there are other, even cheaper options/results that I am not seeing. Or maybe, that day, I want to buy something expensive but top quality. How can I be sure I’m not losing out, just because I haven’t been interested in a website or a topic in the past? It worries me that I have no idea what is being deliberately filtered in – but it worries me even more that I don’t know what is being filtered out.
What do you think? Let me know your thoughts on filter bubbles using the comments box below!
Stop the filter bubbles in their tracks
Don't like the idea of filter bubbles bubbling away when you search? Stop them in their tracks by:
- clearing your cookies
- adding &pws=0 to the end of the search URL string.