Google’s search has been dumbed down for the novices and solipsistic

In response to Google’s latest plan to combine all your usage data on all of its platforms (GMail, Youtube, etc.) into one tidy user-and-advertiser-friendly package, I’m mostly sitting on the fence. This is because I’ve always assumed everything I type into Google Search will inextricably be linked to my personal GMail account…so I try not to search for anything job/life-sensitive in the same browser that I use GMail for.

But even before this policy, Google’s vanilla search (not the one inside Google+) has noticeably gotten too personalized. Not in a creepy sense, but in a you’re-too-dumb-to-figure-out-an-address bar way. And this is not a good feature for us non-novice Internet users.

For example, I’ve been in a admittedly-petty, losing competition with the younger, better-muscled Dan Nguyen for the top of Google’s search results. My identity (this blog, has always come in second-place or lower…unless I perform a search for my name while logged into my Google/GMail account:

Me on Google Search. I am logged in on the left browser, logged out on the right.

The problem isn’t that my blog shows up first for my little search universe. It’s that my Google+ profile is on top, pushing all the other search results below the fold.

This seems really un-useful to me. The link to my own Google+ profile already occupies the top-left corner of my browser every time I visit a Google-owned site. I don’t need another prominent link to it. But I’ll give Google the benefit of the doubt here; they’re making the reasonable guess that someone who is searching for their own name is just looking for their own stuff…though conveniently, Google thinks the most important stuff about the searcher happens to be the searcher’s Google+ profile.

So here’s a more general example. I do a lot of photography and am always interested in what other people are doing. So here’s a search for “times square photos” in normal search (image search seems to behave the same way logged in or out):

'times square photos' on Google Search. I am logged in on the left browser, logged out on the right.

I generally love how Google automatically includes multimedia when relevant; for example, I rarely go to Google Maps now because typing in an address in the general search box, like “50 broadway” will bring up a nice local map. But in the case of “times square photos,” Google automatically assumes that I’m most interested in my own Times Square photos.

I may be a little solipsistic, but this is going overboard. And it seems counter-productive. If I’m the type of user to continually look up different kind of photos and all I see right away are my own photos, my search universe is going to be slightly duller.

Wasn’t the original assumption of search was that the user is looking for something he/she doesn’t currently know? Like, the hours of my favorite bookstore. Doing that search pulls up a helpful sidebox, with the hours, next to the search results:

The Strand's opening hours

This is fantastic. And I do appreciate Google catering to my caveman of the question, especially when I’m on a mobile device.

But in the case of my example photo and name search, Google has gone a step too far in dumbing things down.

My hypothesis is that they are catering to the legion of users who get to by going to Google and typing in “Yahoo.” I imagine Google’s massive analytics system has told them that this is how many users get to GMail, as opposed to typing in

Google seems to be making this apply to every kind of search: when I type in a search query for “dan nguyen” or “times square photos”, Google checks to see if these are terms in my Google profile. If so, it pushes them to the top of the search pile because I must be one of those idiots who doesn’t realize that the Dan+ in the top left corner is how I get to my Google profile or that is too lazy to go to Flickr to look up my own Times Square photos.

The kicker is that that assumption contradicts my behavior. If I’m a user who was technical enough to figure out how to fill out my Google profile and properly link up third-party accounts…aren’t I the type of user who’s technical enough to get to my own Flickr photos by myself?

Searching for my own name is stupid, and kind of an edge case. But what if I’m working on a business site and have linked it (and/or its Google+ page) to my profile? And then I’m constantly doing searches to see how well that site is doing in SEO and SiteRank compared to similarly named/themed sites? Since I’m not in that situation, I can only guess: but will I have to use a separate browser just to get a reliable, business-savvy search?

I realize that this dumbing-down “feature” is the kind of thing that has to be auto-opt-in for its target audience. But I can think of a slightly non-intrusive way to make it manually opt-in. If what I really want are my own Times Square photos, then wait for me to prepend a “my” to the query. I’d think even the novice users could get into this habit.

I'm a programmer journalist, currently teaching computational journalism at Stanford University. I'm trying to do my new blogging at