Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Why Google's Latest Step In The Fight Against Spam Is Dangerous

In its continued struggle with low-quality webpages in its search results, Google is now resorting to its own users to help fight spam websites.

The search giant has released an extension for its Chrome browser that allows users to block sites in Google's search results with a single click. The idea is that if a user finds a low-quality site via Google, it can tell Google about it and that site won't be shown again to that user.

When sufficient users block the same website, Google could conclude it really is a low quality spam site and permanently remove it from its search results.

On paper this sounds like a good idea: Crowdsourcing search quality, making your users tell you what they don't want to see.

In reality, however, this might have an unexpected side-effect: it will enable internet users to indulge in their own confirmation bias on Google's search results.

Take for example a creationist who does not believe in evolution. This person could conceivably block all sites on Google's search results for the ' evolution' query that he doesn't agree with, leaving only search results that criticise evolution.

While that won't necessarily have an impact on other users' search results, it does change Google from an unbiased information retrieval system in to a personalised portal showing only the information you want it to show.

And that, I believe, undermines the greatest strength of the internet: exposure to information and ideas that you previously might not have known existed, and with which you might not necessarily agree.

One of the greatest assets the internet has brought us is this enormous wealth of information, this vast collection of different views and opinions however right or wrong they might be.

The internet has enabled and enriched a global conversation, a continuous exchange of ideas that inevitably leads to a greater understanding of ourselves and our universe.

This new Google feature allows users to separate themselves from that global conversation, and to only be exposed to ideas they find comforting. This in turn could allow for disinformation to persist and dogma to thrive. If you are never exposed to ideas that might contradict your worldview, how could you possibly form a valid opinion about them?

Google's fight against spam websites showing up in its search results is commendable. But enlisting the aid of their users is a flawed approach. Google should improve its own search algorithms itself, and not rely on the masses to help it do its job better.

Barry Adams is the Senior Digital Marketer for Search at Pierce Communications in Belfast. He may not agree with what you have to say, but he will fiercely defend your right to say it – and to be found in Google.

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