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Monday, July 4, 2011

Response to "Ethics of personalized search" SEOMoz blog post

The Ethical Issues of Personalisation Online asked the following questions, so I thought I'd present my views here:
But, is it reasonable to expect a corporate entity to act for the greater good? Particularly if providing users with a more balanced SERP results in them high-tailing it straight into the warm embrace of the competition? In any case – wasn’t it always this way? Before the internet people consumed news only via whichever media sat comfortably with their own political affiliation. Plus of course, even if a more balanced mix of results are shown, you can’t *make* people click through to read something they don’t want to.
So, what do you think? Should we be afraid of personalisation? Should we push for easier ways to turn it off? Should there be more ‘balanced’ results for certain types of queries? Should I get myself a tin foil hat, cancel my broadband, flush my smartphone and hide under my desk?  
First, while I would imagine a for-profit organization would consider that their brand value could be compromised by being overtly unethical in practice,  I would hope that there would be a corporate mandate to try not to abuse their power even if this weren't a tangible risk to their bottom line. Having said that, my cynicism causes me to not expect businesses to act for "the greater good"; in fact, I'm pleasantly surprised when governments do so.

I used to think a lot about web personalization for my employer's extranet presence, as it was my job to encourage various web masters and content owners to adopt the solutions that were available to them. In my situation, there were country-specific legal complications and with some of our customers, a reluctance to let us enable such features, although they weren't as insidious (in my view) as what search engines could do in this realm.

I'm not enough of a fear-monger to say one ought to be "afraid" of personalization, but would take a more centrist wording and suggest that there should be more widespread awareness of what personalization could mean, and an understanding that search engines exist to be profitable, not to provide a public service.

Whenever I've moved countries, I always asked locals for their analyses on newspapers and TV news programming in terms of their political affiliation - which is quite overt in Europe - or other bias. I try to then view their content objectively to see if my impressions corroborate what I'd heard. Subsequently I tend to seek out perspectives on topics based on the type of skewing in which I'm most interested. I do the same with web content from news providers (e.g. for American coverage, Washington Post and Fox News come to mind), and aggregators whose biases of which I'm more aware (example: Huffington Post is my choice, vs. the news portals for Yahoo, Google or MSN.)

In terms of turning personalization off when performing searches, I would join those who would prefer that it be more apparent when results are being skewed for a given query. But I keep hoping that the general populace would act responsibly when shown information, exercise critical thinking, and verify the alleged sources. Critical thought, and the importance thereof, seems to have become a recurrent topic in this blog... It's never a bad idea to take most content with a grain of proverbial salt: web content is easily edited (particularly susceptible are crowd-sourced resources like Wikipedia) and people - the authors of web content - are fallible since they're human.  Caveat search engine user.

p.s. Happy 4th of July to my American readers!

About Mayo

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Professional: As "Senior Enterprise SEO Strategist" in IBM's Digital Marketing division, I provide consulting and training services for both internal and external clients. Formerly I was involved in Natural Language Processing, software localization, quality assurance and documentation authoring.
Personal: INTJ Nikkei Nisei ex-patriated Canadian who takes photographs and enjoys Baroque through late Classical music. The G+ page shares some of the "best of" photos.