Should journalists want Google to get personal?

Friday 13 January 2012, 16:47

Charles Miller Charles Miller edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for BBC History and Business. Twitter: @chblm

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The launch of the social network Google+ last year was only the company's first step against the unstoppable growth of Facebook. This week Google announced its next move - with something Facebook can't match.

Search, plus Your World (SPYW) integrates personal information into Google search results. So if I enter a search term into Google (if I've logged in), my results will be different from yours.

Google gives an example of one of its engineers searching for the name of his dog Chikoo. Now when I search for chikoo the top result is a Wikipedia entry referring to the Indian name for the sapodilla tree. But when the dog owner searches at the top of his results are thumbnail pictures of his mutt, beside a link to "50 personal results" - which are pictures and references he has shared with his friends and mentions they have made of Chikoo.

Here's how Google is promoting SPYW:

Of course SPYW is great news for Google+ because its contents will keep popping up in search results. In theory, Google wants to offer access to personalised information from across the web, not just from its own network. But in practice, as Google-watcher Steven Levy explains, there's a history here which means Google can't access Facebook data.

And while Google engineer Matt Cutts claims in his blog that results from Twitter, Quora and FriendFeed are accessible, Levy concludes that they are not as "deeply integrated" into SPYW as Google+ and describes the result as "unsatisfying".

If you want to try SPYW, go to (not and log in. I found it didn't offer me anything much that was personalised beyond Google products such as Google+, Picassa and Blogger. A search for my name, for instance, produced only one result (this blog) that wasn't part of a Google site.  

If it works well the new product would, on the face of it, seem to be just what Eli Pariser was warning about in his book The Filter Bubble. Pariser describes an emerging online world in which we will only be shown information that reinforces our own tastes and views - or prejudices - and links us to people like us.

But SPYW has a good answer to that: you can switch it off. There's a toggle button to choose between SPYW and ordinary search results. As Google's own blog puts it: "With a single click, you can see an unpersonalised view of search results."

It may be that, as that detail sinks in, worries about the 'Big Brother' aspects of SPYW will dissipate (despite Google's gift to those of a paranoid tendency of embedding the word SPY in the name).

I notice that Mail Online has toned down its headline from "Google gets creepier: Search Plus Your World uses Google+ to tailor-make search results" (4.29am 11 January) to "Now Google uses your social networking account to decide what search results you see" (10.23am 11 January).

But it may be the lack of comprehensiveness across social networks rather than the privacy aspects that gets Google into trouble for SPYW. Levy reports that "some people are saying that Google's move may trigger an antitrust action, and there's already talk that the FTC [the US Federal Trade Commission] is on the case."

So what does SPYW mean for journalists? In a Nieman Journalism Lab blog, Justin Ellis points out that the groundwork for encouraging journalists to use Google to promote their own work and build followings as individual authors was laid last year in an initiative to present news results under names. As Google put it then:

"When reporters link their Google profile with their articles, Google News now shows the writer's name and how many Google+ users have that person in their circles. For the lead article for each story, Google News also shows that reporter's profile picture and enables readers to add them to their Google+ circles right from the Google News homepage."

So it's in every journalist's interest to promote themselves as individuals, appear in Google Plus Circles and therefore pop up in personalised results. Which may be good news for star journalists but perhaps not so good for the rest, and the institutions they work for.

On a wider level, the ability to 'unpersonalise' notwithstanding, personalisation must surely weaken the position of media organisations as gatekeepers to their audience's attention. When everyone has a different news agenda determined by their past online behaviour, the clout of news editors in big media organisations is inevitably reduced.   

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