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Search Filter Bubbles Make Online Research Difficult

by Glen Emerson Morris
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Over the last decade, search engine services like Google and Yahoo have become critical resources for nearly anyone in the world doing market research. The last decade also saw the development of such sophisticated Internet tracking capability that most of the ads and search results a person sees on the Internet are in some ways customized for them. On their own, either of these trends sounds fine, but when you add them together, you get something less user friendly.

The better the Internet gets at telling us what we want to hear, the worse it gets at telling us what we need to know.

Few people seem to have spent more effort considering this issue than the developers behind the new search engine Their solution is simple, duckduckgo offers both anonymous searching and no filters on the search results. Both these features should be of interest to market researchers.

Anonymous searching is worth considering because there is nothing to stop Google, Bing or Yahoo from selling all the terms your business searched on in a given month to your competitors.

The unfiltered results feature is even more important, because it gets to the validity of the information you'll base decisions on. There's an interesting presentation on the filter bubble concept at The duckduckgo team ran a series of tests with volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some people searching on the phrase "climate change" got a list primarily of information sources, while another group got a list of climate action sites. This is a really interesting observation because it illustrates how a search engine presents different data depending on a persons beliefs, or decisions already made.

The Internet is getting very good at providing Web surfers with a highly customized experience. Like our favorite salesperson at our favorite clothing shop, the Internet can offer us something that's in the ballpark of what we'd actually consider, and can afford, on the first try. The problem is that the Internet treats information, facts, the truth, just the same as it treats products. Long term this could be a disaster, both economically and politically.

Some pundits are calling the personalized media environment a silo; it's deep, but it doesn't cover a lot of ground. Why should it? It's there to reinforce old ideas, not explore new ones. No one nailed the situation better than Marshall McLuhan did with his comment that the world society is in a process of retribalizing. The Internet has shifted that process into fast forward.

Life may have been dull when there were only three commercial TV networks available, but there was a consensus reality at the national level that doesn't exist now. We've become a nation of silo dwellers, living in a world cut off from all others. Like frogs at the bottom of a well, each of us only sees part of the sky. We listen to news and editorials not to find the truth, but the reinforce the beliefs we already have. Today, editorial bias on news shows is simply seen as part of branding. People choose the news network they watch on the basis of how closely it matches their own biases. Unfortunately, some people are choosing research material on the same basis.

It's becoming harder for people to understand how to market to people in other groups. We don't listen to the same news other groups listen to. We don't watch the same TV shows. We don't listen to the same music. There are as many channels as there are viewpoints.

How to avoid silo vision in market research
There are things your agency can to do limit the effect of filter bubbles on your research. The first thing is to understand the problem and develop certain processes for dealing with it.

Understand bias
Very few information sources are bias free, so trying to limit your research to bias free information only will mean you have very little information to work with. It pays to understand what type of bias a particular resource might have.

Use an unfiltered search engine
The most important thing you can do to avoid silo vision is to use a search engine that doesn't filter results. By default, has become the preferred search engine for anyone needing valid search results. You may not like the numbers, but they have a better chance of being real. If you want to use other search engines, like Google or Yahoo, make sure you log in anonymously. Clear your cookies before logging in to the site, and don't log in as a registered user. That way, the site won't have any way to categorize you.

Search deep
According to duckduckgo most people don't get past the first page of test results, and very few make it beyond page four. A good researcher should be willing to go through 10 pages or more of results. Granted, the search results on the higher pages will mostly be less relevant, there may be some real gems of information among them worth finding.

Search wide
Try to get information from as many different sources as possible, including sites known to be biased. Just remember to give less weight to biased information that you give to unbiased information.

These steps may add some time to your research project, but following these steps will guarantee that your information is far more accurate. While people have always been willing to swap truth for convenience, when money is at stake, it's better to side with truth.

In the future, we can only expect even greater bias in information. Now that the Department of Commerce has canceled publication the Statistical Abstract and other key statistical publications, most statistics are only available from businesses with a built in bias.

No one is suggesting that we give up on the idea of a customized Web experience for every person. We just need to understand that this customized viewpoint is fundamentally at odds with the search for the truth. For better or worse, and now more than ever, we need the truth.

Glen Emerson Morris was a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law.
He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2011 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved ' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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