"Don't be evil." Google's guiding principle in its early years. Removed from its code of conduct in 2018
We all take Google searches for granted today, but few realize the power and scope of what it can do. As a Boomer, I can recall the days before Google, when we had to rely on encyclopedias, magazines, and textbooks to answer all of our questions. It was extremely laborious and you rarely found the best answers as things kept changing.
Google started in 1998, and 25 years later it was the dominant search engine by far. In the beginning there were many competitors to Google including Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista, Infoseek, and Yahoo. As I write this Google has a dominant 83% monopoly on all internet searches, with its closest competitor, Bing at 3%. How this happened is a story for many books, but today I want to look at all the things that Google can do and can't do. Here are 10 interesting Google secrets I've learned over the years.
1- Google searches are biased. There's no such thing as a pure search. Google keeps track of every search that you make, and tailors each result to the individual doing the searching. They now even request that users set up a Gmail account and log into Google so that they can track multiple users on the same computer.
What does this mean? If you are a conservative and use the search term "Ronald Reagan", it will bring up more favorable results about the former president. If you are a liberal it will bring up more negative articles. Searches can be tailored by geography, income and education level, race, religion, or political leanings. What this does is to put a bubble around every user where they are more likely to find results that confirm their current world view. Another reason we are so polarized. The results that you get are what Google thinks you want to get, and not a true depiction of reality.
2- The Google page is also the launching point for 35 apps. If you click on the little icon on the top right with nine dots, you will be presented with dizzying array of apps that have nothing to do with internet searches. Google has been using its search dominance to branch out into a bevvy of useful things, including:
Google photos, where you can store and share hundreds of photos with friends and family.
Drive, where you can store documents and data to be shared across the internet.
Chrome- its web browser that has become extremely popular.
You Tube- the video giant now owned by Google.
Meet- to set up meetings online as with Zoom.
Translate- Type or speak into the app and it will instantly translate your words into one of dozens of foreign languages.
Maps- for finding directions to just about anywhere.
Gmail- to set up and read emails.
Calendar- to keep track of your calendar.
Many more apps like Store, Travel, Books, Finance, Sheets, Documents that I have yet to explore.
Mind you, anything stored in one of these places is not necessarily secure. Your Google accounts can get hacked, and I have my doubts that Google isn't snooping on my activity to sell me more stuff later on.
3- Google has hidden games that you can play. Do a search for solitaire, pac-man, minesweeper, tic tac toe, or Atari breakout, and up pops games that you can play on Google. It will also flip a coin or roll a die for you. The site for google doodle will show a variety of games including baseball, football, and soccer. And if you're feeling truly bored, you can type in "I'm feeling curious" and Google will supply you with a bit of interesting trivia. Type in "Do a barrel roll" and the entire screen turns around. There are many more Easter Eggs such as these that the programmers hide on the site, and it takes some digging to find them.
4- There are tricks that you can use to narrow your searches. Looking for something on Google can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Given the enormity of the internet, it's a miracle we can find anything useful at all. The algorithm is good, but there are ways to help it.
At the bottom right of any Google start page is a settings menu. Click on it and the option for advanced search comes up. Here you can specify exact words, phrases, or numbers, as well as which websites to include.
If you put your search term in quotes, Google will search for that exact combination of numbers and letters, giving you fewer results. Without the quotes, the algorithm may break up the search and look for the most popular answers that have part of the search term.
And if you include a hyphen (minus sign) in your search, you are telling the search engine a specific word or term that you specifically don't want in your results. Like Disney -mickeymouse.
5- Google Ads pay all of the bills but can be sneaky. Searches on Google are free, but advertisements make the company billions of dollars. On any search, the first few results are reserved for ads. These generally are noted with the word "Sponsored" and are easy to detect. They rely on our tendency to look at the first thing at the top of a list. Those items may not be the best answer to our query, but they obviously work because Google relies on search ads for most of its revenue. And as you would expect, larger corporations tend to dominate that sponsored section and most search results in general.
If you scroll down below the sponsored links, the first item below them is the actual number one match to your query. Because its algorithm is close to artificial intelligence, the website can keep track of all your searches and build a profile of you. It can then tailor an ad package and "auction" off your eyeballs in a split second to determine which ads show up at the top of your results. Be aware that these ads are specifically paying for your unique attention, and view them skeptically.
Google also has a section for Google businesses. Here small businesses can set up profiles, hours of operation, and contact information, while customers can leave reviews. Owners can purchase ads for their business, but the actual business account is free and recommended for even the smallest entrepreneur.
6- Google can utilize sounds as well as words. Assuming your phone or computer has a microphone and speaker, you can google a sound or song and the search engine can try to identify it. If you hum or whistle a tune into the search by voice option, it will return possible song titles and likelihoods of a match. It can also translate foreign phrases through the microphone.
They Google home device can hear and interpret vocal commands and respond to them. The app can play music or read from a book, and with artificial intelligence it most likely can carry on a conversation as well. Just be aware that if your microphone is turned on, Google has the opportunity to listen to everything that you say.
7- You can search for photos. Using image search and Google lens, you can upload or paste any photo into Google and find where it has shown up on the internet. Creative people have used this to protect their work from unauthorized use. Some politicians have been caught lying by posting photos and claiming they were for something else.
People can also store photos on Google of course, which can be very helpful, and those photos are not publicly available. But if Google ever gets sold or changes its rules, those photos could disappear forever.
8- Google flights will tell you approximate airfare anywhere in the world. I recently discovered this option. Navigating travel websites is difficult and full of special offers and very specific information. But Google flights has all of the data right there on one-way flights to anywhere in the world. How else could I discover that a flight to Denver from my city is only $70, while a flight to Kansas City which is less than half the distance is over $200? A trip to Orlando, Florida from St. Louis is $65 but to Miami it's $260. And to London? $636. I wouldn't necessarily buy through Google, but it's a great place to get ideas on where to go and how much it would cost.
9- The search page has a magic button that will listen to your feelings. Most of the time it says, "I'm feeling lucky", and is below the search box. Clicking on this button takes you to the top result immediately, bypassing all of the sponsored links. But if you leave the search bar blank and hold a cursor over that button, it changes into different feelings you might be having, such as "I'm feeling hungry", playful, doodley, funny, stellar, trendy, and more. Clicking on the button then takes you to suggestions for whatever feeling you end up with, and it takes you in unexpected directions.
10- Perhaps the most powerful Google application is also the least known- Google Trends. Google keeps metadata on every search in the world. Because these are mostly anonymous and linked to millions of people, they are a much more accurate barometer of public thought than any opinion poll could ever be. Using Google trends, you find out what people are REALLY thinking. Google keeps tabs on what search terms show up the most and when, and advertisers and politicians watch it closely to gauge public thought at any moment.
For instance, according to Google trends in 2023 these were the top searched items:
Person- Damar Hamlin
News story- Israel/Gaza
Musician- Jason Aldean
Tv show- The Last of Us
Trends- Roman Empire trend
These aren't necessarily the most popular things that year, but they were the things people were the most curious about, as reflected in the Google data. Another way to see what's popular is to start a question like "What is...." and Google will autocomplete your question with popular alternatives at that time.
Google is a behemoth. It processes over 3.5 Billion searches every day and is used by almost everyone in the world that is online. It has made research much, much easier, but also contributed to disinformation and confusion. It's parent company, Alphabet, is worth over a Trillion dollars, and its secret algorithms control how we get information.
I appreciate Google and use it regularly, but I also realize that when something is free, there is a reason for it. Silicon Valley has gotten way too powerful and needs to be more accountable to users who patronize their advertisers and use their products. Hopefully by knowing the ins and outs of Google we can be more knowledgeable about what it is and what it can do for us while avoiding the sneaky stuff.