Google gives priority to location, but is that what users want?

At the end of October, Google announced a policy change. It's no longer possible to give your search a national focus simply by going to Google's site for the country in question. Google sees the change as a good way to make things better for users. However, critics have accused the search giant of curtailing people's freedom to search as they please.

Same search used to get different results

Until now, if you did the same search on google.nl and google.de, you got different results. So, for example, if you looked for a particular book on google.nl, there's a good chance that bol.com would be one of the highest-ranking hits. Whereas searching for the same book on google.de would bring up a list with amazon.de at the top. That was useful if you particularly wanted a German supplier – because the book was a present for a friend in Berlin, say.

On 1 November, that all changed

It no longer makes a difference whether you search on google.nl, google.com, or even Google's Mongolian site. If you're using a Dutch IP address, you'll get results tailored for a Dutch audience. Google sees that as a logical move, because one search in five is nowadays location-dependent. And you can still control the geographical bias yourself by changing your search settings.

More location-dependent searching

Nevertheless, there's probably more to the change than meets the eye. Around the world, Google is faced by governments that want search results adapted to local circumstances. One obvious example is in the EU, where Google now has to process thousands of requests every month from people who want to exercise their 'right to be forgotten'. A more location-dependent search process makes it easier for Google to adjust the results to local requirements, without creating wider issues.

Nationally targeted ads

Another pertinent question is who benefits: users or advertisers? Notably, users in different countries get different results for the same query, even if they're doing a geographically specific search. Just try searching for a pizzeria in your home town, first with the default settings and then as if you were a user in another country. Why would a local benefit from seeing a different list of pizzerias from the list shown to a foreigner planning a visit? For Google, it looks like a great opportunity to customise advertising according to the user's location, so that profitable tourists aren't pointed towards the same places as streetwise locals.

Google has increasing influence over what we can find on the internet

I'm left with the uncomfortable idea that what we can find on the internet is increasingly up to Google and the other search engine providers. And that their influence has the effect of tarnishing one of the internet's most attractive features: its diversity. It'll be interesting to see whether the trend continues, with Google pre-selecting search results in line with more and more user characteristics. Useful? Maybe. But also restrictive.

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