One search can shape everything you see and it impacts your entire world and how you act on the world. No matter what site you are on. Google, Facebook, YouTube, you name it. You get more of what you like and the implications can be terrifying.

In the case of Google, the so-called search engine manipulation effect has its own acronym (SEME) and Wikipedia page with a spot in the “people also ask” box. Wired even covered this back in 2010.

The search giants claim that all this manipulation is really a matter of relevance and convenience. Which, let’s face it, is hard to argue against.

It’s convenient when Google knows the best restaurants within walking distance and keeps track of a growing list of accounts and passwords–special characters and all.

Still, sometimes it’s all a bit much. Despite new transparency efforts, giants like Google and Facebook know a lot about us–and use that data to inform our search results and the ads that appear alongside them.

Today’s AI-Driven Search Environment

According to CMS Wire, AI-driven search is defined by a few key components:

Query Completion–Which suggests queries to users as they type.

Related Searches–Think the “people also ask” box and “searches related to…”

Related Products or Articles:

Today, Google is involved in a whole host of open-source AI projects that take on issues from cancer to fake news. Though it’s safe to say, they’re also benefiting from AI and machine learning themselves, using these futuristic tools to continuously improve search algorithms.

The latest example of this is the recent BERT update, which helps Google understand the meaning behind search queries. Google’s speech recognition tool uses AI and deep learning to understand spoken commands enabling voice search, while RankBrain has been analyzing content and context since 2015.

Beyond that, Google is doubling down on a feature called Google Discover (formerly known as Google Feed). Discover is a recommendation engine that integrates with the browser to deliver content tailored to your interests based on search history location, and preferences.

How Facebook Searches Impact Content In and Out of the Feed

Like Google, Facebook draws from your past behavior to determine which content to display to its users.

This graphic from HootSuite does a nice job breaking down how Facebook determines what to show users in 2020. As you can see below, the algorithm looks at who users typically interact with, how popular the post is, and what type of media is used in the post.

According to Facebook, the latest iteration of its algorithm was built around survey responses. The platform asked users about who they interact with, what types of content they find valuable, how interested they are in seeing posts from Groups or Pages they follow, etc.

FB also introduced the “Why am I seeing this post?” button in May 2019 to bring some transparency into the mix, helping people understand why they see certain content and allowing them to indicate which content they’d like to see less of.

While this all sounds well and good, the problem is nearly 70% of adults get at least some news from Facebook.

Why is this a problem? Take a look at the Most Shared Web Content in 2019 as a starting point:

Away from the actual platform, Facebook’s business users can use tools like Facebook Pixel, Facebook SDK, or Facebook Login to share information about your interactions with apps, websites, and content to create a more personalized experience.

In other words, we’re talking hyper-specific ads.

How to be Mindful of What You See Online

Incognito or Not–Google Might Be Manipulating Search Results

When you’re logged in to Chrome, any website you visit stores cookies locally on your computer. Google’s Incognito Mode is supposed to get around this–or so we thought.

So Incognito is a Chrome setting designed to prevent your browsing history from being stored. It doesn’t hang on to your passwords and search history; making it a solid option for say, checking your email on someone else’s computer.

It’s also a great way for marketers to learn more about what content shows up for specific search terms, without their search history muddying the waters.

However, according to a DuckDuckGo study published in 2018, Incognito actually displays different results to different users. Participants logged in and out of private browsing mode, searching the same terms multiple times.

Researchers found that on average, participants saw 10 unique URLs associated with the same search query.

All users performed the experiment simultaneously, which might suggest that Google was running an experiment to determine which results were most relevant to searchers.

According to Wired, Google adds an anonymous cookie to your private browser which customizes search results for logged out users based on 180 days of browsing data. They do note that customizations don’t have anything to do with your Google account.

A 2019 study found that Google manually interfered with search results, too. The report revealed instances where the search engine made changes to the organic SERPs to appease a major advertiser and that the platform keeps blacklists to prevent certain results from appearing in the autocomplete. Though it’s worth noting–a lot of this means preventing hate speech from appearing in the recommendations.

The takeaway? Google is always tweaking the algorithm in some capacity–personalizing your results whether you want them to or not.

Access and Delete Your Google Search History

You can access your Google Account Activity here, which presents an entire list of every image you looked at, search queried, and the site visited. It’s essentially a more attractive view of your search history where you can filter and delete results.

Delete results by selecting “Delete Activity By” from the dropdown, as show below, and filter by timeframe.

Head over to “Other Google Activity” to learn about some of the more surprising ways the platform tracks your activity.

Here, you’ll find everything from your YouTube likes and dislikes and Google News preferences to your location data, ads settings, and reservations made via Google. It’s… a lot.

Here’s a look at the ad personalization settings.

You can click each one to learn why they show you ads and turn them off if you’d like:

Manage Your Facebook Activity

In August 2019, Facebook introduced a new tool called Off-Facebook activity, which aimed to bring more control and transparency to its users. For example, you can see which online retailers installed the Pixel on their websites, then used your browsing history to promote a pair of shoes you looked at.

The tool offers an itemized list of your browsing data and comes with the option of deleting all of their browsing data in one go or removing data associated with select sites.

Per Facebook’s Help Center, here’s how to use the tool:

Wrapping Up

As a marketer, I’m used to the idea that tech giants like Google and Facebook collect all this data and use it to control what we see–whether that’s organic content, paid ads, or recommended content.

I think the takeaway here is, we should all make an effort to review our activity logs and at a minimum, gain some awareness about how our information is being used.