Don't make me dance to Google's algorithm

Googling yourself: why search shouldn't just show you what it thinks you want to find
Search police

There's a programme showing on Channel 4 at the moment you might've seen: it's called Coppers.

It's not about small change, but police in Nottinghamshire and it's really rather amusing. It's also not a programme I would ever even have noticed let alone chosen to watch based on its title showing up in my EPG or its write up in the info tab.

In the days before the EPG, you'd find the occasional gem like Coppers by idly flicking back and forth between the four available channels to see what's on.

In this case, I only watched Coppers because it happened to be playing when I turned the TV on at 9pm on Monday evening.

The thing is, Coppers falls way outside my regular sphere of interest. It doesn't really fit into any of the genre boxes I might tick, it doesn't feature any artists I admire and it isn't really related to anything I'd search for online.

In fact, Coppers is so unlike the other things that I enjoy that had it not been for that serendipitous circumstance, I'd never have watched Coppers and my life would be the poorer for it.

And that, my friends, was an analogy for the internet. Don't believe me? Read on.

The online filter bubble

This morning, the Telegraph highlighted Eli Pariser's 2011 TED talk on the online 'filter bubble', warning that we don't know what we're missing because of Google and Facebook et al's self-awarded perogative to mould and shape online results based on what they think you're looking for.

The problem is that these search algorithms are informed by you - the you that you currently are - and based on all the signals you've ever given Google. That's everything from the computer you're using to the kinds of links you click on in Google Plus to the things you've searched for in the past.

That means your personal search results are different to your friends', your mum's, your weird uncle's, your colleagues', your milkman's and your worst enemy's. So that's great, right? I mean, why would you want to see anything on the internet that isn't relevant to your exact and specific tastes and interests?

Because we'd all be missing out on Coppers, that's why. Yeah, I could have gone with politics or morals or ethics like Pariser, but no. I went with Coppers.


Similar presumptuous filtering has been taking place on Facebook for years. It's never been clear how the social network prioritises stories in the news feeds, nor how it decides which friends' to show on your profile or what pages it displays top in its internal search results.

The point is that Google and Facebook and co would have assumed that I'm not interested in Coppers, just as I myself would have assumed I'm not interested in Coppers because they only take their cues from the information I myself give them, unwittingly or no.

This is what Parsier calls "invisible algorithmic editing of the web" and it's only going getting more and more marked as search engines rely more on social results and the algorithms learn more about the you that you are.

I'm not saying that all personality-informed search is a bad thing, but we at least need the option to turn it off because depriving you of unexpected search results and left-field friends' links is going to stunt the you that you could be.

That's the you that knows about viewpoints that don't simply echo your own, the you that likes things that the current you assumes you wouldn't like. And, perhaps most importantly, the you that watches Coppers.

News Editor (UK)

Former UK News Editor for TechRadar, it was a perpetual challenge among the TechRadar staff to send Kate (Twitter, Google+) a link to something interesting on the internet that she hasn't already seen. As TechRadar's News Editor (UK), she was constantly on the hunt for top news and intriguing stories to feed your gadget lust. Kate now enjoys life as a renowned music critic – her words can be found in the i Paper, Guardian, GQ, Metro, Evening Standard and Time Out, and she's also the author of 'Amy Winehouse', a biography of the soul star.