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Google hits back after DuckDuckGo criticism and ‘filter bubbles’ controversy

Earlier this week, DuckDuckGo released the results of a study it conducted this summer, which suggested that Google tailors search results for users, even when they log out of their accounts and enable Incognito mode.

DuckDuckGo essentially believes that tailoring search results for individual users creates so-called “filter bubbles” that can influence their views and reinforce their biases.

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“Private browsing mode and being logged out of Google offered very little filter bubble protection. These tactics simply do not provide the anonymity most people expect. In fact, it’s simply not possible to use Google search and avoid its filter bubble,” DuckDuckGo declared. Very strong words indeed.

Google has now responded, in the form of a Twitter thread from Danny Sullivan, Google’s public liaison of search (via Search Engine Roundtable).

“The assumption is that results have been customized in some way based on information unique to an individual, such as search history. FYI: we do not personalize search results based on demographic profiles nor create such profiles for use in Google Search,” the thread continues.

“Personalization doesn’t happen often & generally doesn’t dramatically change search results from one person to another. It is usually so lightly applied that the results are very similar to what someone would see without personalization.

“Anyone who wants to test how lightly personalization is applied can easily check this themselves. Do a search in a fresh “Incognito” or similar private browsing window & you’ll have no account-based activity that is used. You can compare to a regular search.”

The post goes on to explain that the DuckDuckGo study’s findings can be attributed to a range of factors: “As said, personalization doesn’t dramatically change results. So why might two different people searching for the same thing see results that are different? That’s often due to non-personalized reasons: location, language settings, platform & the dynamic nature of search.”

According to Google, none of these can be considered forms of personalisation.

Addressing the fact that all of the participants in DuckDuckGo’s study performed their Google searches at the same time, Google said: “Results might also differ slightly because of how dynamic & distributed our search system is. Our various data centers are constantly being updated with the latest information we have gathered from trillions of pages, along with our latest ranking improvements.

“While we make changes as simultaneous as possible, some new or changed pages might not appear in all data centers immediately, or our latest ranking improvements may not have fully rolled out. These factors, not personalization, can create slight or brief differences in results.

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“Time is also a factor. Those who search a few hours or even minutes apart may see variations as new & updated material is added to our search engine. In particular, our ‘Top stories’ section, which is never personalized, can change significantly in a short period of time.”

Did the DuckDuckGo study concern you at all? Do you find Google’s explanation reassuring? Let us know on Twitter @TrustedReviews.

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