Google has learned a thing or two in the past ten years: Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan has put together a fascinating post comparing screen shots of Google search results from the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks with results following the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday night.
The differences are stark. A full six hours after the 9/11 attacks, Google’s search results for “World Trade Center” still gave no indication that anything was amiss. The company resorted to using ad space for news updates, and its home page told users “If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio.”
Cut to today: since Google’s search results now include social media updates and news stories, users looking for news about bin Laden on Sunday night were able to get up-to-the-minute information.
These are, needless to say, major improvements. But it’s worth noting another big change at Google since 2001 that doesn’t advance the cause of an informed citizenry: the company now automatically personalizes everyone’s search results. In all likelihood, Sullivan’s search results for “Osama bin Laden” on Sunday night were different from mine, which were different from yours.
We might hope that for a story this big, Google would scale back the whole personalization thing a bit. After all, it’s one thing to personalize the results of two people in different cities searching for “movie theater” — it’s another to serve up different results to two people who are trying to get timely, reliable information about a news story of international significance. But while researching the book, we discovered that Google does personalize results for these kinds of Big Stories: when the BP oil spill was dominating headlines last summer, we found that one person searching for “BP” mostly got links to news stories about the spill, while another got investment and financial information about the company. And, as Eli demonstrated in his TED talk, one Googler who searched for “Egypt” during the recent protests got lots of news results, while another got links to travel sites and the CIA World Factbook.
As Eli puts it, there simply is no standard Google anymore — not even for major stories like these.