Zoe and I took on Google’s new search suggestions in this week’s Perpetual Post.

The ever-helpful folks at Google are at it again.  Now when you go to Google.com and begin to search for a word or phase, a list of related suggestions automatically pops up to guide you in your search, or destroy your faith in humanity.  Either way, it saves valuable time.

The concept makes sense in theory.  As Google’s website explains, “Suggestions come in real-time, so typing [ great w ] and clicking ‘great wall of china’ is faster and easier than typing it out.”  You’re right, Google.  That probably does save me a few seconds.  But you lose me when, while searching for a recommended local dentist, I begin to type in “good dentist in the Raleigh area” and before I’m halfway finished, I receive the suggestion “good death knight names”.  I understand that you’re trying to help here, Google, but this seems like a shot in the dark.  Aside from the distraction of being shown searches I don’t want, there’s the simple disappointment of being misunderstood.  That is not what I meant at all, Google.   That is not it, at all.  I search for a certain playwright or a song lyric, and Google is ready with suggestions.  Are you looking for Shakespeare, or maybe Shakira?  Are you searching for information on “christ the king sausage fest” or wondering “why does poop float?”  Why indeed, Google.  I’m glad you asked!  It’s about time I wondered that.

Which brings me to another alarming aspect of this search mechanism: the fact that the suggested searches are apparently based on other searches that are done, as Google says, “by users all over the world”.  Now, I don’t have a whole lot of faith left in the anonymity of anything I do on the internet.  I understand that the web is not my personal playground, where I can come and go as I please, secure in my privacy, researching the mating habits of burros and reading “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman” fan-fiction.  I’m aware that it is possible for someone to be tracking my web surfing habits at all times.  I don’t like it, but I try not to think about it, because without the internet I am a husk of a human being.  However, when Google starts throwing the searches of others back in my face, even though they’re couched as ‘suggestions’, it is an uncomfortable reminder that virtually everything on the internet is being collected, catalogued and stored somewhere—mostly by Google!  I don’t like being reminded of this.  Can’t we conduct our deepest, darkest Google searches in private?

Not only that, but Google saves your own past searches and helpfully provides them when they might be relevant to (that is, use some of the same letters as) later searches—and it helpfully distinguishes searches you’ve personally done from others by placing the word ‘remove’ next to those searches.  So the next time I go on the home computer and begin to search for “scattergories online” and I see the search “scabies symptoms” with that little tell-tale ‘remove’ next to it, I know that it’s time to have a talk with my live-in boyfriend.

The search suggestions I’ve been coming across have also been a little disconcerting.  I do my fair share of googling, but it’s usually to find pictures of muffins or determine David Caruso’s age (sadly, too old for me).  Nothing too earth-shattering, rarely very deep or meaningful.  Judging by the suggested search terms of users all over the world, I am in the minority here.  Type in “why does my” and you come up with a veritable catalogue of maudlin questions.  “Why does my husband not love me?”  “Why does my wife lie to me?”  “Why does my boyfriend not want to marry me?”  Google has apparently set up shop as the Miss Lonelyhearts of the twenty-first century.  The questions and problems that you would expect people to bring to their therapists, their parole officers—possibly even their friends; they are laying them upon the altar of Google instead.  No wonder everyone feels more isolated than ever these days.  We can’t even turn to one another and ask basic questions of each other—like, “why do men have nipples?” and “why aren’t dinosaurs in the bible?”  Maybe before we ask Google one more thing, we should ask ourselves a profound and increasingly important question: “Who else uses this computer?”

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