Why Google Customizes Results When You Search for ‘Obama,’ But Not for ‘Romney’


Is Google anti-Mittens? (Photo: Wikimedia)

Just in time for Election Day, the Wall Street Journal decided to conduct a little experiment in personalized search on Google (GOOGL), inspired by Duck Duck Go founder Gabriel Weinberg. (It should be noted that Mr. Weinberg has a little skin in the game. Duck Duck Go is a privacy-protecting search engine, funded by Union Square Ventures.)

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Back in September, Mr. Weinberg found that some users who searched for “Obama,” “abortion” and “gun control” on Google got back results with links to articles that referenced the president under the search label “you recently searched for Obama.” But when users replaced “Obama” with “Romney,” that label and the customized search results didn’t pop up.

Employing 62 testers via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, the Journal got the same results:

Testers searched for “Iran,” “Medicare” and “Gay marriage” after searching for “Obama,” “Romney” or for the keyword “election.”

After searching for Obama, about 80% of the testers subsequent search results were altered to contain links containing the words “Obama.” Searchers for “election,” saw about 25% of their subsequent search results customized to contain links containing the word “election.” Testers searching for “Romney” didn’t see customized links containing the word Romney in their subsequent search results.

But Google says its mathematical algorithms reflect volume of searches, rather than a political bias:

Google said that the Obama-Romney disparity reflects the fact that more people searched for “Obama” followed by searches for “Iran” than the number of people who searched for “Romney” followed by “Iran.” As a result, people who searched for Iran after Obama got a customized blend of Iran-Obama news in their search results. Romney searchers didn’t.

It probably doesn’t help that Mr. Romney’s policies–on everything from Iran to his tax plan–have been a little hard to pin down.

Why Google Customizes Results When You Search for ‘Obama,’ But Not for ‘Romney’