SearchWiki: Boon for Google, Bust for Privacy

Google recently launched SearchWiki, allowing users logged into their Google Account to customize their search results by re-ranking, deleting, adding, and commenting on search results.

Google states this is an effort to improve user experience, and I’m sure some will benefit from being able to customize and annotate (to some extent) their search results. I suspect, however, that Google true motivation is to (a) counter any perceived threat from Wikia Search, and, (b) take advantage of users’ feedback to adjust its overall ranking algorithms.

That second point needs further elaboration (and I’m guessing others will jump on it, too). Google has long pointed out that it tracks, collects, and processes what users search for and click on in order to “improve the quality of search results.” With SearchWiki, Google can now amass an even larger dataset of user behavior, including how particular users rank certain results, what results they don’t find relevant, and even what results should be there that Goggle’s spider hasn’t yet discovered. In short, users are now performing much of the crawling, indexing, and ranking functions that Google has previously stated was done to near perfection through its algorithms.

And what do users get in return for providing this labor to Google? Better results, perhaps. But also some serious privacy concerns.

David Weinberger has revealed how Google’s SearchWiki automatically displays the user name of other searchers who have voted to increase a page’s ranking. As Weinberger explains:

So, now the whole world will see that “dweinberger” not only searched for “Angelina Jolie” but thumbs-upped the page of closeups of her tattoos? Guess who just changed his nickname to something less identifiable! This is a feature without value — the list of names isn’t clickable or complete or tell you how many people voted it up — unless you recognize someone’s nickname, in which case it has negative value.

Fred Stutzman agrees, also pointing out that Google has made a curious decision in requiring all SearchWiki “notes” to be public.

Stutzman’s overall assessment is spot on:

Considering Google’s zero-day rollout of SearchWiki into their main search property, the lack of HCI and Privacy consideration that went into the product is shocking.  There’s no opt-out.  All comments are forced public.  There’s no way to change your handle.  There’s no way to leave yourself a privacy-enhancing private note. Instead of rolling this feature out fully-baked (opt-in/out, with critical functionality), Google has rolled a half-baked product to all users and forced them through this curious funnel.

[Today, when I went to vote on a search results, I was presented a warning screen noting that my actions will be attributed to my account name and viewable by others. This warning doesn’t appear in the video Google originally released showing how to use the product, so perhaps they’ve seen these criticisms and added this step?]

UPDATE: Fred Stutzman has followed up with some additional criticisms and reactions to SearchWiki (which, btw, isn’t really  a wiki at all).

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