Google’s personalized search results are way too personal

Search Plus Your World brings your G+ friends' faces to the top of the Google hits parade -- often with embarrassing results.

Ever since Google turned on its “Search Plus Your World” feature last month, my search results have been a little funky. And by “funky” I mean embarrassing, and not just to me.

SPYW is Google’s attempt to add Facebook-like “social search” to its normal search functions. If you’re logged into Google and you search for the word “baseball,” for example, any of your Google contacts who have linked to a result with the word “baseball” in it will show up at the top of the results page, along with their profile pic. Roll the mouse over their face and their name pops up.

[img_assist|nid=247862|title=G+ links to baseball? No big deal|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=589|height=297]

What happens if you search for something less innocuous, like the name of a disease or drug? Well, that depends. As it does with its “instant” search results, Google blocks some NSFW terms that might cause embarrassment, but hardly all. In fact, the things it does and doesn’t block seem totally random.

Blocked: Sex, porn, hemorrhoids, penis, homosexuality.

Not blocked: Lesbian, crack smoking, incontinence, drunk, naked.

(For more examples of terms that aren’t blocked, visit eSarcasm, home of hopelessly sophomoric and occasionally NSFW humor.)

This doesn’t mean your friends are all drunk, naked, smoking crack and wetting themselves, but the juxtaposition can be jarring. You’d have to dig into the search results to see how they connect to these terms, which most people won’t bother to do.

In search, context is everything.  Nobody wants their face showing up here, for example:

[img_assist|nid=247866|title=But venereal disease is a whole different ballgame|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=597|height=280]

You can of course turn personalized search off by going into your Google Search settings, scrolling down to “Personal results” and ticking the “do not use” button. But all this does is stop displaying your G+ friends’ links on your search results page. Your friends can still see your links on their results pages.

This is a problem, because you can’t now go back and remove all associations you have with the stuff you’ve posted. In the past you’d get some protection from the “security through obscurity” defense. What are the odds that someone randomly searching for “syphilis” will stumble across your name? (Infinitesimally small, one hopes.)

Now with SPYW, Google brings these results right to the surface – and there’s nothing you can do about it, short of trying to convince all of your friends to turn off Personal results.

[img_assist|nid=247868|title=Let us know how that works out|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=581|height=153]

Got a question about privacy and/or social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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