The Power of Google

Posted on: Mon, 22 Sep 2008 00:51 By: patrick

Today I experienced a powerful demonstration of the influence that Google has over their user's look on the world.

The experience

I was sitting at my desktop machine, entering the search terms "samba" and "ldap" in Firefox's Google search field. The results that came up:

  • two entries from samba-ldap.de
  • one entry from de.gentoo-wiki.com
  • one entry from home.rhein-zeitung.de
  • only at the bottom of the first 10 results there was something from the samba.org site

"Weird," I thought, "why are there so many German sites at the top of the search results?"

I went over to my laptop machine and entered the same search terms, "samba" and "ldap". Hmmm... quite different search results, with the same samba.org entry from before suddenly ranked as the top result. "Much better," I thought, "but still strange... what's going on here?"

Looking for clues

I started fiddling around and comparing things between the two machines:

  • I was using google.ch on both machines (trying to use google.com just redirected me to google.ch, I think they do this based on my IP address)
  • the difference in search results persisted even after I had cleared cookies for google.ch on both machines
  • next I went to Google's preferences page (ever noticed the "Preferences" link next to the "Search" button?) to check whether there were any different settings

Suddenly the difference between desktop and laptop machine was glaringly obvious: On the desktop machine the entire Google website appeared in German, while on the laptop computer the website appeared in English!!! I hadn't noticed this before because I had been focusing on the search results. I was still puzzled why Google was presenting me with different localizations on the two machines. After all, on both machines I am using the English version of Firefox 3 to browse the web.

The solution

To make a long story short: As it turned out, the reason for Google's behaviour was buried in Firefox's preferences, on the "Content" tab where you can select the "preferred language for displaying pages". This language preference influences the content of the HTTP header "Accept-Language" that Firefox sends to web servers (such as google.ch), which in turn allows those web servers to evaluate the HTTP header and to serve back to Firefox web pages that are localized in the language preferred by the user.

These were the settings I used:

  1. laptop machine: en-us, en, de-de, de (Google displays English localization)
  2. desktop machine, original: en-gb, en (Google displays German localization)
  3. desktop machine, fixed: en-gb, en, de (Google displays English localization)

Rant

There are some things about this whole language issue that, as one of Google's users, I find utterly outrageous.

--- rant begin ---

  1. Even though my languages were explicitly set to "en-gb, en" (cf. setting 2 above), Google presumes (probably based on my IP address coming from Switzerland) that I have made a mistake and that I actually want German localization. This is arrogant and patronizing! The only way I can avoid this after a standard installation of English Firefox is to explicitly add "de" to the end of my list of languages. Thank God they respect this!!!
  2. In my view far more damning than the previous point is: Google confuses localization and search results. Why should a preference for localization have an influence on the results of a given search? Can Google really be seriously suggesting that a person doing research on the same set of keywords will get different results if she does the research with different localization preferences???
  3. Point 1 and 2 together make for another "interesting" scenario: Imagine that I am a traveller using a laptop with English Firefox installed. I am using the laptop to do research, first in Switzerland (using a Swiss IP address), then in Britain (using a British IP address). Entering the same set of keywords, Google will present me with different search results. I am duly amazed! Why should research yield different results depending on where, geographically speaking, I am doing the research?
  4. But wait, there is more! On Google's preference page users may choose between "Interface languages" and preferred "Search Languages". Incredibly but true, if I change the interface language to "German", the search results change, too, in favour of German sites! Same thing as in point 2 above! Oh no, not again :-(
  5. And the last item: If on the same preference page I select "English" as my preferred search language (but leave interface language on "German"), this has exactly - no impact on search results at all! I am mystified, I would have expected samba.org to appear at the top of the search results. Well, obviously I am too dumb to understand the meaning of terms like "Interface language" and "Search language". I would be very glad if somebody could explain to me how these preferences work. Email is ok, I will forward the explanation to Google so they might add a clarifying statement to their help pages for dummies like me.

--- rant end ---

Conclusion

For some people the issues above may be less serious than for others (e.g. me), but what these issues (esp. 1-3) prove to me is that Google's actions and the way how they choose to implement their technical solutions have a direct influence on how their users perceive the Internet and even the real World at large.

Whether Google's influence is subtle or obvious, whether it is exerted knowingly or unknowingly - it is there, and users (especially non-technical ones) often are not aware of it. For me today's experience was a reminder that it is a good thing to step back from time to time and to ask myself whom I trust to help me form my view of the world.

You may be interested to read this critical interview with Vinton G. Cerf (Google's official "Chief Internet Evangelist") in one of last year's issues of "Das Magazin".

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