Google recently released a series of tweets revealing the answer to a question many of us have wondered about for years: Does Google personalize search results? In other words, when two people search for the same query, do they get different results?
You probably know part of the answer already. If you search “dentists” in Chicago, you’ll get different results than if you search “dentists” in Dallas (this is called localization, more on this later). But what about other searches related to politics, shopping, health, or news? If someone in Chicago searches for information regarding a recent political event, will they turn out different results than someone who searches the exact same thing in Dallas?
In Google’s first tweet on the subject, they immediately dispel the myth that all Google Search results are personalized. Still, they say, “Results can differ, but usually for non-personalized reasons.”
So, what are Google Search results based on?
Before we get into that, let’s relay a few important things Google wanted to dispel right away:
- Google does not base search results on demographic profiles.
- Google does not create demographic profiles for use with their search engine.
- The light personalization and customization that is used for searches will not dramatically change results from person to person.
How Google Determines Your Search Results
As stated, Google does use certain criteria to vary search results in some cases:
This is one of the most common ways in which Google may provide differing search results for different users. Localization refers to how Google provides location-specific results to individuals who are searching in a given area. For example, as we stated above, a Google searcher looking up “dentists” or “best restaurants” in Chicago will get different results than someone in Dallas searching the same queries.
Google knows that someone who speaks Italian and searches in Italian probably wants Italian web page results. Therefore, language is used to determine search results.
Dynamic & Distribution from Google
Google’s many data centers are continually updated with new information from the unfathomable amount of web pages online. The sophisticated technology Google possesses enables most updates to happen nearly simultaneously; however, in some situations, not every data center will have updated results at the very same time. Because of this, two people searching the same thing may receive only slightly varied results and just for a brief amount of time until data centers are fully updated.
Timing can make quite a large different in search results as well. For example, if someone searches for news stories or “Top stories” just a few minutes apart from someone else, they each may come up with different results. Search several hours apart, and the result differences may be even more drastic.
Google wants to make online searching as fast, smooth, and easy as possible. For this reason, it’s common for a search made on a mobile device (a smartphone or tablet device) to come up with different results than for a search made on a desktop computer or laptop. Certain websites simply load faster and are more mobile-friendly than others; therefore, these pages may be closer to the top of search results on a smartphone than they are on your work computer.
Wait a Minute — Aren’t All of These Examples of Personalization?
In Google’s words, no. And here’s why: Within each of these light customizations, the results will be the same for every group. For example, the localization customization is not a personalization of search results because, in Google’s words, “everyone in the same location gets the same results.” The language customization is not personalization because, again, “everyone [who speaks language A] gets the same language results.”
The same thing goes for the rest of the customizations. They are not individually customized; instead, they are customized according to attributes shared by large groups, such as the hundreds of millions of people in the world who speak French or everyone located in New York City.
Other Customizations: Web & App Activity
Google’s explanation that they do not use heavy personalization for Google Searches has another facet that wasn’t discussed at length in their recent series of tweets: Web & App Activity personalization.
What Is Web & App Activity?
Every Google user has a setting called Web & App Activity. This feature controls the data Google saves about you, based on your searches and activity across all Google services. The aim is to give users a more personalized experience, so this information could influence search results. Still, Google ensures that your past activity will only influence search results lightly.
According to Google, the feature saves things like:
- Activity you do with Google services and Google products — for example, Internet searches and use of Maps
- Your location, IP address, and language
- Things you buy from advertisers’ sites and ads you click on
- Device information, such as recent apps used or searched contact names
This information may be saved while you are online and/or while you are offline as well. Remember that you can choose to allow Google to collect and save this data, or you can disable the feature. You can also search through your past activity and/or delete it.
We can only assume that when Google released their recent tweets concerning personalized searches, they were referencing searches conducted while the Web & App Activity feature WAS disabled. Therefore, if your goal is to avoid having personalized search results based on your past Google searches, information stored on your device, ads you’ve clicked on, etc., you should disable the Web & App Activity feature.
Test it for Yourself
Still not convinced you’re not getting drastically personalized and unique search results from Google? Test it yourself.
Google recommends first opening the browser you usually search in and typing in a search. Next, open a new private browsing window (Incognito in Chrome) and type the exact same thing. Compare the searches, and you should find that the results are either the exact same or very close and explicable by one of the customizations Google uses above.