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Tin foil hat alert: Google could get very personal

Written by David Harry   
Tuesday, 14 October 2008 09:13

Finding relevance through Application Focus signals

So do you think Google is watching what else you’re doing on your computer and seeking to personalize your search experience based on open document, emails or other desktop applications? It is a interesting question…. So let’s get out our tin-foil hats once again and go for a ride.

I have read about such mythical beasts in a few patents over the last while and thought it was an interesting idea, worth at least floating here. Basically, things you may be reading, writing or listening to on your computer (or Android phone?) are used as signals for customizing your search results. Sound like madness? Then you’ve come to the right place as we specialize in it around here.

Consider I am listening to ‘Rock Lobster’ on my media player and decide to search ‘b52’ – by monitoring application focus the search would likely re-rank documents relating to the music group – not the famed airplane. The same if related phrases are being used in an instant messaging interface, in an email… well, you get the idea.


Application focus as a ranking factor

I started thinking more after reading a few of the comments from the folks developing search for the Android mobile system that mentions;

“…we've integrated search across the platform so that applications can even share search capabilities with each other

Then we wonder about what extent they communicate with other applications? And then, obviously, what personalization could be occurring in the search results. It was time to play connect the dots, slipping further into the madness.


Google on my desktop

Here’s a look at the search result for ‘link building’ to get this;

Application focus


Those top bits are related to my Google Desktop installation, (which itself was an experiment to connecting the dots). Essentially it is mixing results from my other applications with the normal SERP (Search Engine Results Page) as explained here;

“The Google Integration feature shows you combined personal search results and web results in your web browser.” GDT Support

The suggested results then recommended not only local documents, but searched the URLs in my recent search history (from any browser) – which is much different than my ‘search history’ as normally associated with personalized search (via Google account).

Clicking that leads to;

Potential ranking signals


As you can see it looks at local files, emails, web history and even chats… (what is ‘other’ I wonder?) – Anyways, plenty of potential signals there.

The Google Empire

Now let’s take stock for the moment and look where they can get these cross ‘application focus’ type signals;

Potential for Application Focus signals;

Google PC (total access)
Google Chrome (applications, browser and full surfing history)
Google Android and upcoming G1 (surfing history, email, services/applications)
Google Desktop (near total access)

Related personalization data;

Google Services Account such as Gmail, Docs etc.. (PS via cookie, demographic info)
Google ToolBar (full surfing history, bookmarks)

This is a formidable list, even if the gPC hasn’t been gang busters of late…

Think of the cumulative data that they’d have. And getting rid of search history still isn’t the easiest. Looking at the info on the Chrome browser, using Incognito mode, the search history might still be tracked;

“If you sign into your Google Account on while in incognito mode, your subsequent web searches are recorded in your Google Web History. In this case, if you want to make sure your searches are not stored in your Google Account, you'll need to pause your Google Web History tracking.” -

I just love these guys… indexing the world’s information right?

My friends, personalization is becoming far more common and takes many forms. Data that can be mined from changing application focus may be part of a new age of information discovery. It is at very least concepts worthy of strategic and lateral thinking for us search geeks.

the Google Empire


What does any of this have to do with u?

This means that there are more ways to collect personalization signals through application focus than ever before. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Google TV or some way to get their fingers into the data cookie jar of the original time sink.

Point being that not only are these potential personalized re-ranking data access points, but also larger over all ranking signals. Sure, they’d likely not make for a strong signal, but playing with the data for tweaking seems a sensible path. Behavioural metrics make for some very interesting analysis not only on a singular level, but categorization and segmentation (clusters) as well.  

It’s something to watch if you’re a Search marketer and even for those Social Media Types – that can create buzz and spawn email, instant messenger, social activity (because we haven’t forgot OpenSocial right?). Who says ranking signals and information retrieval needs to be confined to a search engines index? Changing the application focus means access to data typically beyond the reach of search engineers not so long ago.

As behavioural data and personalization efforts increasingly play a factor in how search is evolving – a premium on value and reach is paramount.

You may now take off the tin foil… but keep it handy.


NOTE: we're playing with some data on SERP flux/personalization... stay tuned for more soon ;0)


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