It may be called the World Wide Web, but surfers in Canada can’t be blamed for wondering whether they’re always getting access to the best the Internet has to offer. Whether it’s websites that automatically redirect you to a Canadian subsidiary, or blank video viewers on websites like hulu.com that are supposed to contain U.S. network television content (but don’t because of territorial broadcasting rights), there’s mounting evidence that the Internet, for all its vaunted global-ness, can sometimes be an infuriatingly local experience.
Take Google, the world’s most popular search engine. Most browsers will automatically direct Canadians away from the original google.com site toward the .ca version (and its Canadian content) if it detects that your computer is located north of the border, even if you type in google.com. The same is true for associate sites such as Google News and Google Finance. Similarly, Canadian visitors to yahoo.com also get redirected to a Canadian version of the site. The efforts seem odd considering the Web is supposed to be borderless and all about individual choice. By contrast, msn.com shows first-time Canadian visitors a pop-up window with a large Canadian and U.S. flag and asks them where they want to go.
In Google’s case, the search giant says side-stepping the redirect feature is a simple as clicking the “Go to google.com” link on the main page once. But those who are in the business of figuring out secrets behind Google’s complicated search algorithms say it isn’t quite that simple, because Google still knows where your IP address is located and can make adjustments accordingly. “If you’re looking at google.com results while on a computer in Australia, you’ll probably get a 30 to 50 per cent different result set than someone searching the same query in the United States,” says Justin Cook, who runs a search optimization business in Toronto called Convurgency.
That raises the question of whether Google and other search sites actually provide a window into the entire Web, or just portions of it, and whether Google is treating everyone equally, or whether some users are effectively getting “better” information than others. Google stresses that this isn’t the case, and insists every search conducted on its website is a global one. “The regional domain is one of more than 200 signals Google uses to rank search results,” says Jake Hubert, a spokesperson for the Mountainview, Calif.-based company. The company also notes that users have the ability to search from different country sites—google.com.au or google.co.uk, for example—or in different languages.
From Google’s perspective, it’s all about providing users with the most relevant results—and often that means finding information that is localized. For instance, Canadians searching for tax information are more likely to want to know what the Canada Revenue Agency has to say about their situation than the IRS. Similarly, Google’s news service highlights mostly local news stories and sources. On the other hand, Google is sophisticated enough to know that Canadians looking for information on U.S. President Barack Obama are likely to be more interested in U.S. and international sites than Canadian ones.
But it’s also about delivering advertisers the eyeballs they want. The vast majority of Google’s nearly US$22 billion in annual revenue comes from online advertising, which tends to be most effective when it’s geographically targeted. “It is all about relevance, but at the end of the day it is also about their business model,” says Cook. “If more people get relevant results, more people click on the ads.”
Experts say the idea of a one-size-fits-all search tool sounds democratic, but likely isn’t that desirable in practice. “Fundamentally, the idea of searching the ‘best of the Web’ is kind of a flawed concept,” says Kevin Ryan, the chief marketing officer at software company WebVisible and a contributor to website Search Engine Watch. “What’s best is usually what’s best for you.”
And like it or not, search is destined to become more targeted. And not just by country or city. Every time you enter a search term, Google learns a little more about you (or at least your computer) by tracking IP data and using cookies. And with the addition of mobile devices equipped with Web browsers and global positioning systems, Google increasingly has the ability to target a specific user who is walking in, say, downtown Vancouver and looking for a place to eat by showing them an advertisement for a nearby sushi lunch special (because it knows from previous searches that the user favours Japanese). “In essence, they are watching you,” says Cook. “What you’re searching for, what you’re clicking on, and what interests you.” Which unfortunately suggests that, in the future, if you don’t like the results you get from Google, you will have no one to blame but yourself.