The internet is a huge part of how we form our image of the world. How much of it yours is created by some tech corporation’s algorithm?
If you spend much time on conventional search engines and social media, the answer is probably more than you think.
These services track every move you make as a user, and this determines everything from what ads you get to what news stories you see.
Knowing this might make you a little queasy. I definitely find it unsettling.
Let’s take a closer look at how search engines decide what results to show people, and how using an unfiltered search engine can help you get better results – without the distorted reality.
How do normal search engines work?
Before we can understand the need for an unfiltered search engine, we have to understand how conventional search engines deliver results.
Unlike what most people assume, mainstream search engines don’t present a neutral set of search results. For every term that you type into Yahoo, for example, you get a unique page of links. They are sorted by relevance and popularity.
Relevance is both how relevant the result is to the search term and how well it fits the user profile – the set of information that the search engine has collected about that person by tracking their activity.
Popularity is a search engine’s metric of quality. If a lot of people visit a page, the engine assumes it contains more valuable information.
The order of results is determined by complex algorithms that organize them based on literally hundreds of variables, or “ranking factors.”
Ranking factors include much more than just what words are on the page. There’s also quantity and quality of links within the site, content length, keywords, social media metrics, traffic to the site, and many more abstract variables.
I already mentioned user profiles. All the conventional search engines collect massive amounts of data about anyone who runs searches on them. This data is used for two purposes:
- Selling to corporate advertisers, who use it to create personalized, “targeted” ads
- Showing you these targeted ads wherever you go on the internet
- Deciding which links make it to the top of your results page
The results that you see might be very different than your friend or neighbor will get for the same search term. This is intended to be convenient, to give you the results that you’re most interested in, but it means you’re getting a very skewed image of reality.
The filter bubble: how search engines distort reality
You might have heard already of the infamous “filter bubble.”
“A filter bubble is the intellectual isolation that can occur when websites make use of algorithms to selectively assume the information a user would want to see, and then give information to the user according to this assumption. Websites make these assumptions based on the information related to the user, such as former click behavior, browsing history, search history and location. For that reason, the websites are more likely to present only information that will abide by the user’s past activity. A filter bubble, therefore, can cause users to get significantly less contact with contradicting viewpoints, causing the user to become intellectually isolated.”
You might notice that if you search for something related to the news, for example, Google or Facebook will show you a page full of results from your side of the political spectrum. It’s certainly convenient, since these are probably the news sources that you’ll want to read from, but it means you’re increasingly caught within your own opinion, cut off from anything that might challenge your existing viewpoint.
When you’re searching for vegan cake recipes, maybe it’s not such a big deal. But it has much deeper (and scarier) implications.
Many experts are saying the filter bubble had a big effect on the 2016 presidential election.
On the one hand, we had millions of Democratic voters who were certain that Clinton’s victory was a foregone conclusion, because they never saw anything but support for her campaign on their searches and social media pages.
On the other hand, there was a vast population of Trump supporters bombarded with fake news stories – which spread like wildfire through these social media echo chambers – and never hearing about their candidate’s flaws.
These algorithms might seem like something just for nerdy programmers to worry about, but they will play a major role in the future of democracy.
Unfiltered search engines: the way to escape the filter bubble
So is there any way to search the web without being manipulated by search engine algorithms?
Fortunately, yes, and it’s easier than you probably think!
You can simply switch to using an unfiltered search engine, one that doesn’t track your activity and thus delivers more neutral, non-personalized results.
These search engines have the added benefit of being more private and safe.
They don’t gather and store your information or share it with third-party advertisers. When normal search engines do this, it’s a security risk to you as well as an invasion of privacy, since that data could always leak or be stolen.
Plus, if the government asks for this information, the search engines will hand it over.
Private search engines don’t do any of this, so with a good one, you can get the same results without the risk or the filter bubble.
MyPrivateSearch is one the best. It’s available as a webpage or Chrome extension that detects your searches on other engines and redirects them to a secure results page. You get results as from Google or Bing but without any tracking.
Everything is encrypted. It’s fast, simple and easy to use.
Using an unfiltered search engine might take some getting used to, since they don’t organize or anticipate your actions they way a normal one does, but I believe it’s worth the effort.
When you next want to search for something, instead of automatically entering your term in whatever bar is at the top of your screen, take a moment to think about what you’re really looking for.
If what you’re searching for is just those vegan cakes, maybe it’s no big deal to use a normal search engine that will give you the recipe websites you visit the most.
But if you’re searching for something with a bit more substance, maybe you should think twice before entrusting your results (and handing over your data) to a search engine algorithm. Maybe try an unfiltered search engine instead and see what a different picture of the world you get.