Pew Report: 65% View Personalized Search As Bad; 73% See It As Privacy Invasion

Personalized search? Both Google and Bing will tell you that it provides better results. But two-thirds say they don’t care. They view personalized search as a “bad thing,” a new survey finds. Nearly three-quarters also view gathering data to personalize results to be a privacy invasion.

The findings come out of a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Around 2,000 adults in the US were questioned between January 20 and February 19 of this year as part of a wide-ranging poll about search engine use, though fewer may have answered particular questions.

Personalized Search: A Bad Thing

People were asked how they’d feel if a search engine tracked what they searched for, then used that information to personalize their future search results:

Rather than a straight yes/no option, the choices gave some context. From the chart above about views on personalized search:

  • 65% said it was a “bad thing” since, as the response said, “it may limit the information you get online and what search results you see”
  • 29% said it was a “good thing” because “it gives you results that are more relevant you.”

By Demographics

The survey also broke down responses to the question about personalized search by age, income level and race:

Generally speaking, the older someone was, the less they agreed with personalized search. The percentage of those who said it was bad by age group:

  • 18-29: 56%
  • 30-49: 67%
  • 50+: 70%

A similar pattern was true by income group. The more you earn, the more you’re likely to consider personalized search to be bad. The percentages disagreeing with it by income:

  • Less than $30,000: 45% (the most favorable of all groups)
  • $30,000 to $74,999: 68%
  • $75,000: 75%

Whites were far more likely to disagree with it than Blacks/Hispanics as a combined group (70% to 50%).

Invasion Of Privacy

The survey also asked the same question but with a different set of possible answers, these designed to tell if tracking searches was deemed a privacy invasion:

Again, rather than a straight yes/no option, there was context to each choice:

  • 73% overall said they were “Not OK” with personalized search, since they felt it was an invasion of their privacy
  • 83% of those 50+ viewed it as a privacy invasion
  • 69% of those 18-29 viewed it as as an invasion
  • 68% of those 30-49 viewed it as an invasion

Some History & Perspective On Personalized Search

There’s no way to tell if all the attention personalized search has had lately is generating more negative views than in the past. That’s because Pew hasn’t surveyed views on personalized search before, to my knowledge. But those surveyed now clearly did not like it.

The new findings will likely give fresh ammunition to those who oppose personalized search, especially as conducted by Google. It follows on another survey last month that found largely negative views.

However, it’s worth noting that personalized search has been the norm at Google for over two years and at Bing for just over a year. Even if you’re not logged into either search engine, they’re personalizing your results.

The fact that most people haven’t objected, or gone out of their way to prevent even logged-out personalization from happening, probably means that they really don’t understand the ways that personalization can be helpful. Last November, Google had a very good post explaining some of the benefits.

Yes, I know — it’s Google, of course they’re going to push the benefits. But so does Bing. Yes, I know, Bing wants to personalize results just to make money off searchers in the same way as Google. True.

But it’s also true that some personalization can indeed be helpful, especially in a web full of crud. Just over a year ago, people were screaming that Google’s search results were being overrun by garbage, which resulted in the Panda Update. But filtering can only do so much. Personalization is also a useful signal.

Preventing Fears From Becoming Real

The challenge is when the search engines go to far. Google’s Search Plus Your World launched earlier this year dramatically increased the amount of personalized results that were visible (though ironically, it also made it far easier to turn off the personalization that had been happening since December 2009).

Google faced pretty severe backlash in the mainstream and tech press, though regular users really didn’t seem to notice or care about the change.

My view tends to be that no one likes the idea of personalization. There’s fear that you’ll be stuck in what Eli Pariser calls a filter bubble. Or that you’ll be in that bad feedback loop like at Amazon, where you get terrible recommendations based on an odd one-time purchase. And there are real privacy worries about having all your searches — some of which can be intensely personal — recorded.

I think when you ask anyone about personalization, the reaction they have will be far more negative than in their actual routine. If they’re educated more about it, if you give them more context, a knee-jerk “it’s bad” response can often turn into a “maybe.” I’ve seen this happen when I’ve spoken with people on the topic.

That’s not to take away that people do have real concerns. It just remains to be seen if those concerns on paper turn into walking away from Google and Bing to the likes of Duck Duck Go or other “private” search engines we covered recently. Certainly if the major search engines don’t show care to these concerns, that may increase the odds.

More From The Survey

We’ll be breaking down different aspects of the complete Pew survey in the coming days. So far, here’s our other coverage:

More On Personalized Search

And here are some related background pieces on personalized search:


Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Features: Analysis | Google: Personalized Search | Google: Search Plus Your World | Legal: Privacy | Microsoft: Bing | Search Engines: Personalized Search Engines | Search Features: Search History & Personalization | Stats: Search Behavior | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Alex Bramwell

    I want my social media to be personalized and my search to be independent. There is nothing social about search. It’s madness to show me my own stuff when I am looking for information!

  • P.N.

    Google keeping tabs on our searches then selling that info to advertisers is just another example of over the line profits before real search value to the user. People are using alternative search methods as a result, which will ultimately hurt Google in the long run. Our privacy is not for Sale.

  • V.P.
  • Matt McGee

    Thx VP – we wrote about that last week on our sister site, Marketing Land:

  • T.G.

    Personalized search messing up search results has been a major talking point since Google+ started pulling major search power. Granted, everyone exploited the new social media platform for personal gain. But the results of the survey are not surprising.

    We wonder if there is some element of search that perhaps someone could do better than Google. THAT we’d like to see. If not personalization, what alteration could be made? Depersonalization, where everything is from the generalist angle? What kind of searches would we get?

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