Credit to Author: Matt Burgess| Date: Wed, 22 Jun 2022 15:59:55 +0000
To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.
To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.
Google’s search results have become cluttered. If you open the world’s most used search engine and look up “sofa for small flat,” you’ll be met with a handful of ads showing elaborate corner suites, followed by some common questions (“what is a very small sofa called?”). A few scrolls down the page, you’ll reach the actual search results. There will be some variation based on where you are in the world, your search history, and other factors, but you’re largely getting the same kind of results as everyone else.
Now privacy-focused web browser and search engine Brave is trying to open up the opaque, SEO-driven world of algorithmically curated search results. Starting today, Brave is moving its search engine out of beta and trialing a new tool that allows you to customize your search results. Dubbed Goggles, these tools allow you to rerank the web pages that appear at the top of your search results by applying a series of filters to them.
For instance, a Goggle (not to be confused with Google) can strip Pinterest pages from your search results; it can show only results from tech blogs or boost articles from either left- or right-leaning political news sources. Essentially, it puts you in charge of the search results you see. The move is the first for a search engine. “Goggles represents a fundamental push toward algorithmic transparency and openness in search,” says Josep M. Pujol, Brave’s chief of search. However, it also raises questions about the impact filter bubbles have on search results.
How search engines work exactly is a closely guarded secret, ostensibly to prevent website operators from gaming the system. Broadly, search engines use web crawlers that scan and index pages across the web and then rank them based on potentially hundreds of different factors. Those with high scores are shown at the top of search results.
“The ranking that takes place is both proprietary and invisible,” says Belinda Barnet, a senior media lecturer at Swinburne University, Australia. Brave’s Goggles do not open up its own search algorithms or make its search index transparent, but they do give people more power over how they search. “Goggles would be a little intervention of sorts, a way of making the invisible visible, for Brave users in particular,” Barnet says.
Goggles sit alongside Brave’s general search option, Pujol says, and are not meant to replace standard search entirely. However, the overall idea behind Goggles is easy to grasp. Tap in a search query and a Goggles tab will sit next to image, video, and news results. It works by applying a series of filters and rules to the search results that are shown. If you use Goggles to exclude results from the 1,000 most visited sites on the web, for example, any URLs from these websites won’t show up in the search results.
“Goggles are simple, self-contained text files which can be hosted anywhere,” Pujol says. “These files contain instructions that define a re-ranker on a particular syntax.” Pujol adds that when a Goggle is used, the search engine will build a “very large” set of results and then filter out any that don’t apply.
Anyone can create or alter a Goggle. However, at the beta launch, Brave created eight different Goggles as examples. (It says these will be deleted once people create their own). These examples include Goggles to re-rank search results to remove copycat pages, removing search results from the top 1,000 websites, boosting content found on technical blogs, and more.
Pujol says that Brave created Goggles—which it first outlined in a 2021 white paper—to help remove biases from search results, including those in Brave’s search, and give people more choice. “Biases are everywhere: the underlying data, which sites are easier to crawl, which models are chosen, feature selection, presentation biases, popularity, the list can go on indefinitely,” Pujol says. It is very hard, if not impossible, to remove all biases from search results.
“Goggles will allow the creation of multiple universes within which users could search,” says Uri Gal, a professor of business information systems at the University of Sydney. Gal adds that the move is welcome in a search market that “has seen little innovation or competition” over the past couple of decades. “It would reduce the risk of people getting a single view of reality—or that portion of reality that they are interested in—that is created and maintained by a single platform (e.g. Google, Facebook) based on proprietary algorithms,” Gal says.
Brave knows that people may use Goggles to reinforce their worldview and filter subjects that align with their existing beliefs. At launch, both right- and left-leaning political Goggles have been created by AllSides, an American company that rates media organizations for their political bias. “We believe in freedom of speech, and as such, it is not for us to decide what is right or wrong,” Pujol says. “The person using Goggles is making a conscious act when applying a Goggle, and contrarian perspectives should be readily available. This explicitness alone is an improvement from the current landscape, where this kind of alteration is made without the user realizing it.”
Brave says it will treat Goggles the way as it does all web results and “not censor or police them,” unless it is required to do so legally, such as removing instances of child sexual abuse material.
But there are questions about how this will work in reality. “Exercising bias control is an action for the thoughtful,” says Bart Willemsen, a VP analyst focusing on privacy at Gartner, who adds that he is hopeful Goggles can have positive results. “In the abundance of information available, including dis- and malinformation, to correctly curate what is believed to be relevant and what not, or even untrue, is a huge task,” Willemsen says.
Despite Google’s dominance, there’s a flourishing market for alternative privacy-focused search engines, which claim not to track users or use their personal information for creepy ads. This includes Brave, which launched its search in beta last year. Among others—all with slightly different privacy claims and ways of working—are DuckDuckGo, StartPage, and Mojeek. (DuckDuckGo uses Bing to help power its search results, while StartPage is based on Google.) While billions of searches are made with Google alternatives each year, that’s still a drop in the ocean compared to Google’s dominance.
The search results that companies show, while being based on multiple factors, can prove controversial. Companies may face difficulties with the amplification of political content and issues around free speech. In October 2021, Twitter admitted its algorithm amplifies right-wing politicians more than left-wing ones. Recently, people on the far right have complained that DuckDuckGo limited Russian propaganda, although its results are partly provided by Microsoft’s Bing. In contrast, one 2019 study by Stanford University researchers found that Google’s search results didn’t favor either politician wing.
When Brave debuted its idea for Goggles in 2021, the company said it would open an offer to incorporate Goggles into any other search engine. So far, Pujol says, there haven’t been any conversations about this. And large changes to the status quo are unlikely. “I can’t see Google or any other major platform integrating user-defined Goggles,” Barnet says. “It would interfere with the way they personalize advertising to you and how they collect data on your activity to deliver that advertising. In other words, it would interfere with their business model.”