Personalized Web at the Reference Desk

Just going to throw something out here: have you considered the implications of personalized search in your reference transactions?

Websites like Google and Yahoo attempt to improve your experience on their sites by shaping what you see today based on the searches you’ve performed in the past.  Sounds fine, doesn’t it?  But there may be unintended consequences.

Here’s an example.  Okay, so you’re at the reference desk.  You just started a shift, having replaced a colleague around lunchtime.  A few patrons ask you questions that require Google searches, but only after the third time you hit that browser tab do you realize that it’s still logged in to your coworker’s Google account.

What just happened?

Whose online experience was shaped just then?

Yours? Your patrons?  Your coworkers?  Google’s?  Google’s AdWord buyers?  Seems like everyone just took a hit: you and your patrons, because your search for the answer to their query was shaped by your coworker’s previously tracked activity.  Your coworker also took a hit, because Google forever associated those searches with her account.  Google and their AdWords clients even took something of a hit, because they think that these five people’s unrelated searches belongs to a single account that they’re pushing keyword-based advertising to all day.

I don’t mean to say that personalized search is inherently bad, just that it might be subtly altering our reference transactions in a way that it wouldn’t if the search engine wasn’t adapting to the user’s taste.  The effect may seem small, but it is there nevertheless, and we should consider its implications.  As a professional, should I ever conduct a search for a library user while logged into a service that’s personalizing the Internet?

If you don’t think that you should at least consider this question, think about the last transaction you had when you found yourself helping a patron whose question was about a controversial topic, involved something you found personally repellent, or espoused a political opinion radically opposed to your own.

(Super-concerned about the neutrality of your search experience on the desk?  Consider Disconnect, a Google Chrome extension that was discussed today on ReadWriteWeb.)

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