On the Wrong Track

In Wednesday’s post I talked about my quest for new glasses. Of course, I’d spent a fair portion of the day looking at frames online. Now it seems that almost all the banner advertisements I see are for the very sites I had visited during my search, and I’m not sure I like the level of personalisation my internet browser is giving me.

I’ve noticed it crop up in other ways, too - when searching for a particular item using Google’s shopping search, words I enter into the search bar autocomplete with “Cardiff” tacked on at the end. True, the capital is only half an hour’s drive away and occasionally I would like to find a nearby store to go and pick up the item from personally, but for the most part I’m perfectly happy to order online, and by prioritising results with “Cardiff” in them I end up having to scroll through pages of results before finding what it is I’m looking for. Or at least I would if I didn’t remove the word from the search bar and run the search again - not exactly a difficult task but still I’d prefer to add the word when I need it rather than have to remove it every time.

As far as the advertising goes, it’s bad enough that it’s showing me adverts for websites I’d already visited mere hours ago, but they were also adverts which featured the exact frames I’d been looking at. This seems utterly nonsensical to me, as seeing as I’d already spent a fair while on those websites (and presumably my browser was also able to tell this) by the time I’d finished with them surely that meant I’d either found what I was looking for or I hadn’t, meaning that either way advertising that particular website wasn’t going to show me anything new. It would be as if the checkout in my local supermarket could analyse what it was that I was purchasing, then make a suggestion based on that, and, seeing that I’d bought two litres of Coca Cola, decided that it was going to hound me with Coke adverts all the way back to my car. I’ve just bought the Coke, I don’t need to be reminded to buy it minutes after making my purchase.

Not that I usually pay much attention to internet advertising anyway, but at the least I’d expect to see a wide variety of things that just might catch my attention. The best advertisements of course are ones for things you didn’t know you wanted or needed, and only by seeing the ad did you even discover what it was they were attempting to sell you.

It gets worse.

I’ve also seen stories about how different people get different search results prioritised depending on what they use their browser for; two different people might search for “Greece and while one gets news items about their current economic situation, the other will get links to websites where they could book a holiday. There might even be several pages between where one specific result appears for the first person and where it appears for the second. They call it the “Internet Bubble”, and I don’t know about you but I find it all a bit scary.

Social networking sites are guilty too. For the first time in six years I changed my relationship status on Facebook to “single”, and within the hour the entire advertising bar in on the right hand side of the page was filled with advertisements for dating websites.

Every link you click, no matter which site you do it on will be logged and factored in to your search results and adverts, and, let’s be honest, how often do you go past the first couple of pages in any search before giving up and starting again? Choices I’ve made could be pushing the very link I’m searching for just off the page, and I’d never be any the wiser.

There are, of course, things that can be done about it. I’ve heard of people using separate browsers for work and play, but as far as I can tell this just gives you two separate sets of tailored results. There are also search engines popping up which promise to “burst the internet bubble” and not filter any results but give them to you, unedited in the order in which they find them. I’ve tried a couple and, truth be told, it seems they still need a bit of work. They’re missing things like image, video and shopping searches so I soon found myself defaulting back to Google.

For the moment I’m just trying to be as specific as I can when searching for something, and making an effort to go a few pages deeper before giving up, just to make sure what I was actually looking for wasn’t hiding just around the corner. Also, I can’t say that I don’t on occasion appreciate the tracking to help me search for things more quickly. Perhaps eventually these non-tracking websites will catch up and offer the functionality we’ve come to enjoy from the biggest search engines, or engines like Google and Yahoo will offer a non-tracking mode, but until then I think it’s best to at the very least be aware that it’s happening, and be prepared to look further than the first page of results before assuming we have all the answers.

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