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The Demographics of Web Search 131

Posted by kdawson
from the do-what-i-mean dept.
adaviel sends a link to work out of Yahoo Research indicating that demographics can help Web searches; e.g. a women searching for "wagner" probably wants the 18th-century German composer, while for men in the US "wagner" is a paint sprayer. The Yahoo researchers claim that by taking user demographics into account, "they managed to get the chosen link to appear as the top-ranked result 7 per cent more often than in the standard Yahoo search." New Scientist mentions this research and two other innovative adjuncts to current search practice: following the mouse cursor as a proxy for eye tracking, and taking back bearings on online criminals by studying the searches they make. (The latter raises disburbing privacy questions: would you want Google trolling through your search data? How about governments?)
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The Demographics of Web Search

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  • who is asking you? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by roman_mir (125474) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @02:41PM (#32868072) Homepage Journal

    would you want Google trolling through your search data? How about governments?

    - what do you mean 'would you want', who is asking you, plebes?

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Thank goodness /. editors ask these probing questions in the summary. I wouldn't know what to discuss otherwise.

    • by asticia (1623063)
      Aren't engines doing it anyway as long as you're logged on? Part of the customization. Or whats my tagging with stars and irrelevant links in google results?
  • Correction: (Score:4, Informative)

    by BrokenHalo (565198) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @02:43PM (#32868098)
    Wagner was a 19th-century composer, not 18th.
    • by Yvan256 (722131) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @02:58PM (#32868216) Homepage Journal

      Are you sure? I just searched and the first result is this Slashdot article which clearly says that he was an 18th century composer, right in the summary.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by BitterOak (537666)

        Are you sure? I just searched and the first result is this Slashdot article which clearly says that he was an 18th century composer, right in the summary.

        Good heavens, why was this modded Insightful? I think the poster was going for Funny. Anyhow, a quick Wikipedia search reveals that Richard Wagner lived from 1813-1883, making him a 19th century composer.

        • Re:Correction: (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Yvan256 (722131) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @04:00PM (#32868640) Homepage Journal

          Modded insightful twice too... I guess some people can't be bothered to think for themselves and just moderate to increase whatever the current moderation is.

          • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

            by Hognoxious (631665)

            What's really amusing is that two people posting mutually exclusive answers are currently at +3 and +4.

          • by Sique (173459)

            And BitterOak can't be bothered to actually read Yvan256's answer for what it is: an ironic twist citing the summary as a reference for itself.

          • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

            Modded insightful twice too... I guess some people can't be bothered to think for themselves and just moderate to increase whatever the current moderation is.

            I've seen that trend from time to time -- it becomes most obvious when two people make essentially the same comment; one gets modded up, the other modded down.

        • Says something about believing in the results of a cursory web search.
        • ..but he just plagiarized stuff from the 18th century...

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by tehcyder (746570)
          That sound you can hear is an almighty whoosh caused by the Ride of the Valkyries.
        • by Tim C (15259)

          Good heavens, why was this modded Insightful?

          Funny doesn't give karma.

      • by Phroggy (441) <slashdot3 AT phroggy DOT com> on Sunday July 11, 2010 @06:52PM (#32869818) Homepage

        Are you sure? I just searched and the first result is this Slashdot article which clearly says that he was an 18th century composer, right in the summary.

        Quick, somebody update Wikipedia! You can cite this Slashdot article as your source.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by MagusSlurpy (592575)

        Are you sure? I just searched and the first result is this Slashdot article which clearly says that he was an 18th century composer, right in the summary.

        No it doesn't, it says he's a 20th century paint-sprayer company.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by icebike (68054)

      Wagner was a 19th-century composer, not 18th.

      But when I (male) search for Wagner I'm more interested in Jill [imdb.com] than Josef or Richard.

    • That would probably be Georg Gottfried Wagner (1698-1756), who also played violin for Bach (1685-1750), another 18th-century composer, and not to be confused with Leonhard Emil Bach (1849-1902), a 19th-century composer.

      Either that or KDawson thinks that "18 century" means "1800s."

      (I am a musicologist, but I am not your musicologist, and this post is not intended as musicological advice).

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      It's also the name of a really, really shitty brand of airless paint sprayers, which do a great job of splattering paint all over and making a huge mess.

  • by Aaron Denney (123626) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @02:43PM (#32868108) Homepage

    > would you want Google trolling through your search data? How about governments?

    Heck yes I want Google trolling through governments' search data.

    • I presume that the goverment and google are already trolling through my search data so nothing new for me here. It's too invasive if they start tracking the mouse cursor on my screen but since I don't surf much I'm not too worried.
      • The "but since I don't [insert something here] much so I'm not too worried." argument is dangerous:

        "THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
        and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

        THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
        and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

        THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
        and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

        THEN THEY CAME for me
        and by that time no one was left to speak up."
        -Martin Niemöller

        more information [wikipedia.org]

        Perhaps the example above is a bit extreme, but today liberties are not lost in large chunks, just inch-by-inch.

  • Neat-o. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bieeanda (961632) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @02:48PM (#32868138)
    So the search I did last night, for 'how to fix a cracked toilet', might result in 'hire a plumber, lady' instead of 'go to Home Depot for a replacement, dude'.

    (Yes, I'm being facetious, but still. That Wagner example is pretty awful.)

    • Stereotyping search queries causes problems: One, a lot of people lie about their age and other stats. Two, just because it's true for the group doesn't mean it's true for the individual. For example, gays and lesbians have far different profiles than their heterosexual demographically-matched counterparts. Profession can mean a lot to a search too, or even race. And I'm sure this isn't motivated at all by making more targeted advertisements, too! Last, what if you want to know what other people not from yo

      • Remember this is for the top-ranked results; if you don't match the demographics, it just mean you'll possibly have to click a few more pages.

        Besides, search engines (at least Google) give you a way to disable personalization [google.com]. I wouldn't bet that they actually delete and stop collecting data, but at least it probably doesn't apply it to re-order the results.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Capt. Skinny (969540)

        Just because it's true for the group doesn't mean it's true for the individual.

        Improving search results is about aggregates -- returning the best results for the most queries. Individuals don't matter. Google has used this fact to their advantage to show many links to many people while keeping their interface clean: each user only sees three links at the bottom of the main page, for example, but each of n>>3 links displayed in that spot is viewed many times.

        If Yahoo can move relevant links higher in the result list for 15 percent of queries, the only concern is about the quan

        • Sadly, I think you're right about how SEO is practiced, though I would think that REAL SEO (true Scottsman?) would mean ensuring that your site is showing up more for those folks for whom it IS relevant, and less for folks for whom it is not.

          In other words if I have a niche site selling foo, then my site is very relevant to folks searching for foo. If there is some real correlation between folks who like foo and folks who also like bar, then my site may also be relevant to them. However, if baz is totally u

          • The problem with it is that it works.
            The more people you get to see your listing, the mor eclick on it, and the more that end up giving you their money (through whatever method)
            Thus, modern SEO works to give their customers the best value for their money, which, currently, is higher matches for their chosen keywords.
            Do keep in mind, however, that these keywords typically have to be fairly relevant for the rest of it to work. The best SEO companies don't go about rating 'home improvment' type sites for, s
      • Valid point. Yet on the other hand, implementing those stereotypes -- oops, demographics -- as rules has increased their accuracy as measured by click-throughs. There's a reason for most stereotypes; and when you can build those stereotypes based on objective and measurable past data, there's more value to them.
    • When Google started to change from just linking the "Did you mean?" results to actually inserting them in place of the results for what I actually searched for, I realized on some level that this might be appropriate for people who don't know what they're doing and aren't paying attention, and that those people might be in the majority... But I didn't bother mentioning that in my angry feedback. =)

      Maybe Google doesn't care about customer feedback because they're not in a position where they have to worry ab

  • by loufoque (1400831) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @02:49PM (#32868148)

    Yes, that's really what we need...

    What next, a search result that depends on your religion? If you type "Origin of the Universe", you get articles about the Bible if the engine thinks you're Christian, and scientific material otherwise?

    They need to understand there is little value in subjective data. Their results are already biased enough, they should take steps to fix that, not make it worse.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Krahar (1655029)
      A search engine's purpose is finding what the searcher is looking to find, not in finding what you or someone else think they should be looking for.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by noidentity (188756)
        Just imagine trying to share tips on finding things with someone. "Well, it helps if you're a male Atheist, otherwise I'm not sure how to find things related to this." Again, smart search engines are worse than dumb ones, because you can't predict how a smart one will respond to your query. Either it gets it right, or it gets it wrong and there's little insight you can have into why. Give me a dumb tool that does what I tell it and whose behavior I can predict and thus adjust to.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Krahar (1655029)
          We already don't know how Google works. If you want to tell someone about something, you can give them a link, or you can log out of your Google account if you are doing this on Google and this comes in the way. This technique allows to give people the link they are looking for more often than if it isn't in use, and that's exactly what a search engine is about. I'm sure you can opt out and most people using search engines aren't as knowledgeable about what they are doing as you might be.
  • by jheath314 (916607) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @02:50PM (#32868160)

    I don't want my neighbors to find out about my obsessive and crippling fear of genetically engineered dinosaurs next time they do a search for "Toronto Raptors" from my computer.

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I don't want my neighbors to find out about my obsessive and crippling fear of genetically engineered dinosaurs next time they do a search for "Toronto Raptors" from my computer.

      What do you get for "Chicago Bears"?

  • Isn't Yahoo pretty much in the process of outsourcing their search to MS?

    • Isn't Yahoo pretty much in the process of outsourcing their search to MS?

      Have you seen bing search results lately? (That is -- if you can get past the "look at my first web site" graphics on the home page. ) They need all the help they can get.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    When I'm searching for pregnant-futanari-on-hermaphrodite-furry, I really mean pregnant-futanari-on-hermaphrodite-furry.

  • wow... Just, wow.. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Dee Ann_1 (1731324) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @02:56PM (#32868202)
    "e.g. a women searching for "wagner" probably wants the 18th-century German composer"

    A -- women -- ???

    I see a FLOOD of this, women used where woman should be used and woman where women should be used.

    Wow......
  • ROI at 7 Percent (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Sully2161 (1042864)
    I don't disagree with the general principle, but I have to wonder if 7 percent is worth the time, effort, and privacy issues involved. Also, note that the 7% is of a specific 30% subset; the actual value for all queries is 1.5%. I then have to ask how many of those 'upgraded' top-ranked results were already near the top (i.e. in the top 10/first page of results). I feel that the whole idea is getting less fruitful by the second... - S
  • They must have my demographic setting wrong. Half my searches for naked women come back with women's undergarment stores.

    Joking aside, when you've got multiple people of different genders (such as in your average multifamily dwelling) using the same computer, such demographic results won't work too well. I wonder if this might explain, in part, why my search results really are less pertinent when I'm not signed into my gmail account.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If you're searching for something where this would help - like home depot products and you fit the demographic you are in then great - add a button that keeps you in your area and helps you avoid german composers.

    To me though, this would be very restricting if I'm truly trying to look up something I (and therefore maybe my demographic) knows just a little about. Steering me back to results that I already know about would get to be very annoying when what I am looking for isn't usually searched by my demogr

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... not!

    When I was living in France for a while (job related), I was quite annoyed by all those websites that assumed that because my computer's IP was in France I wanted to see the site in French, even if the site was a .com and I explicitly tried to click the "English" link. (My French is good enough to buy some baguettes with rillettes, but not for reading technical articles.)

    This goes into the same direction: It works in many cases but when it doesn't, it will piss off the user.

    • by tehcyder (746570)

      When I was living in France for a while (job related)

      It's OK, you don't need to give us an excuse.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by netsharc (195805)

      THIS! I too have major hate of forced localization, everytime I set-up a new browser and load up Google, it goes to google.de (I'm in Germany, I speak the language well enough, but I want the content that I want, you stupid f'ing websites!). Even worse is Comedy Central and their South Park clips, an English-language blog embeds a clip from a South Park from Comedy Central, I click play, and guess what happens? The clip is dubbed in German! Aaarrrrggghhh!!!

      Also trying to read myspace profiles (why, why?) ge

  • highly dubious (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Audax_23 (869457) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @03:37PM (#32868446)
    ... this idea smacks of a tool that's trying to be *too* helpful, and ends up getting in the way. Kinda like the old microsoft paperclip. I went and turned off this function in google accounts when I realized that my search results were being shaped based on my history, since that partially defeats my expectations of how a search engine behaves, and degrades the utility, insofar as the utility (to me the user) is based on receiving an unbiased sampling of the matches. I'm also troubled by this trend in the way that google delivers their news offerings, it seems that the logical progression of this is that we will mostly only be exposed to material that fit our highly individualized pre-existing reality bubbles.
    • > I'm also troubled by this trend in the way that google delivers their news
      > offerings, it seems that the logical progression of this is that we will
      > mostly only be exposed to material that fit our highly individualized
      > pre-existing reality bubbles.

      You don't have to be logged in to a Google account to use Google News or Google Search, you know (in fact, you needn't even accept cookies). As for the "highly individualized pre-existing reality bubbles", that's why people read Huffington Post/Fo

  • funny .... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by smisle (1640863)

    The first thing I thought of when I read Wagner was the popular brand of jeans.

    There was/are gender predictors out there that will look through your search history and try to predict what gender you are. They were mildly successful (though dead wrong in my case). I think I prefer Google's more invasive yet more accurate method of paying attention to which results I click on and giving me more of the same without regard to gender or age. I DO like getting local results though.

    As far as women vs woman goes

    • by tehcyder (746570)

      The first thing I thought of when I read Wagner was the popular brand of jeans.

      It must be hard work trying to design search algorithms for dyslexics.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Search history presents a great potential for loss of IP. I do technology development in an area of considerable interest/value. From looking at my search entries, it would be pretty easy to determine the directions of my development work and anticipate it. It's clear that search history mining is gonna happen. I'm interested in anonymizing my search activities as a result.
  • This is wrong. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sea4ever (1628181)
    A search engine is supposed to find things which fit the regexp that you request.
    Often someone will tell me in a forum to "search for x in google", what happens when the results are not exactly the same worldwide because of this technique?
    Also, there are loads of people that use proxies and so on to search the web. (like people in china) Their demographics would appear all skewed because it would seem that someone in the proxy's country of origin is requesting to search for webpage x.
    I don't agree with
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by RobertLTux (260313)

      what would help is a simple way to toggle custom/standard searches and to see which way the toggle is currently set

    • by jmcbain (1233044) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @04:01PM (#32868646)

      The search results are not just a regex matching. A modern search engine, like Google's, returns a ranked list of search results to you, and this ranking already has bias: the Pagerank algorithm sorts the results based on how popular the page is, as measured by the number of incoming links to that page. Of course, that is the general gyst of Pagerank as of the Google founders' research paper back in the late 1990s, and undoubtedly Google and other search engines have fine-tuned their algorithms since then to return "better" results to the user. But the point is still that there is already bias in the results.

      Make no mistake that Google has not already thought of similar search result ranking algorithms similar to that posed in this Yahoo Research paper. The difference is that Google does not have a research arm like Yahoo, so they do not publish ideas like this. In hindsight, the Google founders were foolish to publish their Pagerank algorithm in the first place, but they were still at Stanford then.

      • by Radtoo (1646729)
        Or maybe they were not so foolish since advertisers and others can actually trust the ranking. Secrecy isn't always good for business, even if you're absolutely dependent on some business secrets perhaps the core of what you're doing is best not to be secret, only the finer details on how to do it well.
      • by Grishnakh (216268)

        The search results are not just a regex matching. A modern search engine, like Google's, returns a ranked list of search results to you, and this ranking already has bias: the Pagerank algorithm sorts the results based on how popular the page is, as measured by the number of incoming links to that page.

        That's fine, because if I'm doing a two-word search, I probably want results that are more popular, rather than some random obscure websites that happen to contain those words. That's a perfectly valid way o

  • following the mouse cursor as a proxy for eye tracking

    And if the user turns out to never touch the mouse? Keylogging every single character pressed? This is plain absurd.

  • I expect something like this [youtube.com]

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Sunday July 11, 2010 @05:39PM (#32869348)
    This would not be an issue if Google simply did not save that information. Sure, I know: they say they want all that information for "targeted advertising". BUT... surveys have shown that people do not want "targeted advertising" in the first place! Despite claims of the "benefits" to consumers, turns out they're not interested if it means losing privacy.
    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      I actually like targeted advertising, as it helps me find out about things I may be interested in. However, I don't see why anyone needs to save any information long-term to do this. For instance, on a Google search, they shouldn't need anything more than my most recent search (or perhaps the searches I've done in the last few minutes, if I'm doing several searches with progressively-refined terms) to find things I'm interested in. I don't want ads based on searches I did two weeks ago.

      I don't know exact

  • What if I'm a woman and I WANTED the paint brand, huh? (Or a more pertinent issue, if I start looking up for MMO's and it tries to steer me towards Bella Sera or something instead of WoW?)

    Seriously, this has "Bad Idea" written all over it, for the criticism levied against it for entrenching gender stereotypes if nothing else.

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      Trust me, you DON'T want the paint brand. Wagner sprayers are total pieces of shit that only splatter paint all over, making a big mess. Read the reviews; they simply don't work as advertised. I think their whole business model is relying on people to listen to their ads and buy their crappy sprayers, try them out, find they don't work, and then throw in them in the trash because it's easier than taking an hour to clean up the sprayer to return it to the store.

      The airless paint sprayers that actually wor

      • In THEORY, man! In THEORY!

        • by Grishnakh (216268)

          Sorry, just trying to do what I can to steer people away from those horrible Wagners. I'm a very handy guy--between fixing houses, rebuilding car engines, and woodworking, I've done it all--and the Wagner sprayer is the biggest POS tool I've ever tried.

  • How are the search engines capable of doing this on their own? It needs to be remembered that almost 80% of internet users (in India at least), use dynamic IPs. Most ISPs here charge extra for static IP and most users just don't bother - what use would the average layman user have for a static IP? I'm assuming that's how it is in most other places too. Correlating searches and search patterns with demographic details needs active cooperation from all ISPs, isn't it?

    And oh, thanks to the submitter for remind

  • I absolutely don't mind a search engine giving me an option to interpret my search, but it would be terrible if I can't switch that option off.

    How many times do we search for one keyword (or even a string), spelled exactly so? Just like in a library catalogue. The last thing we want is some algorithm applying an undocumented filter to our search results.

    It's bad enough that Google insist on fuzzyfying that string (even when you put it between quotes), but when it starts interpreting my search intent bas

  • I want the same damn results anyone else gets from making the same searches. Why would I want it any different?

    I'm not searching for something I already know, I'm searching for something someone else already knows.

  • Yahoo Research says: e.g. a women searching for "wagner" probably wants the 18th-century German composer, while for men in the US "wagner" is a paint sprayer.

    Google says: e.g. a women searching for "wagner" probably wants the 18th-century German composer, while for men in the US "wagner" is a porn star

    Gee, I wonder which one men are gonna use...

  • e.g. a women searching for "wagner" probably wants the 18th-century German composer

    As would anyone taking or interested in Philosophy [wikipedia.org]. Of course this is an example of a terrible search query, like searching for "strange" without specifying "quark", but I'll take the generalized results all the same, thanks. Please don't tell me what I want.

One man's constant is another man's variable. -- A.J. Perlis

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