Playing with algorithms

Where can you find the world’s best pizza? What is the most popular curry recipe, headache relief? The answer, according to Google, is it depends. It depends on where you are.

This video shows how the Google search algorithm tracks geolocation and changes keyword suggestions, search results and displayed ads accordingly. Using a VPN software, I pretended that I am from several different countries (Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, United Arab Emirates and Switzerland)  The same search phrases yield different search results depending on location.

While the algorithm’s influence on recommendations about restaurants and recipes are relatively harmless, it’s influence on medical information seems like its heading to grey territory. Results from some countries are preceded by ads, pushing the actual information downwards. In fact it is quite ironic that the ads for headache relief are followed by search results for homemade remedies.

2 comments

  1. sbayne says:

    This is interesting Ed and I like the approach you’ve taken to the task. I wonder what results would have looked like if you’d taken more contentious topics for your search (I guess you explicitly decided not to do this)? It reminds me of the way in which Google’s mapping of the Crimean border was in the news last year – in Russia it showed Crimea as part of Russian territory via a solid line; elsewhere it indicated the Crimean border as contested, with a dotted line (and still does). Fascinating stuff. (see http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/04/12/302337754/google-maps-displays-crimean-border-differently-in-russia-u-s)

  2. Ed says:

    Hi Sian,
    I hadn’t thought of searching for the more contentious topics. The re/mapping of the border I think is a great example of how algorithms, though they may not call attention to it, are really entangled in a socio-political web of negotiations. What I tried to show in the video is how algorithms influence the information we access even without user logins. Search results influenced by geolocation is a good example. There is also a tension in the specific example of top searches for headache remedies. While a page on homemade remedies ranks as the top organic or non-paid search result across four countries, ads for over-the-counter medicines featured prominently in some of the countries’ search results, pushing the other search results downwards, where they are less likely to be seen or clicked. The different search results show how commercial interests conflict with what people look for.

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