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Quite often I see comments on this SE network in the form of:

Given that this question is now the top Google hit…

But sometimes that was a statement I couldn't confirm to be true.

Recently I saw the exact thing happening to me:

Googled a phrase, found an SE post at the top spot, told someone via phone about and they denied it to be true.

So I launched another browser to check whether it was a case of cookie bubble and indeed that SE post was now on page 4 of results. On the same network, same computer, same session.

Since I quite regularly clean out all cookies on my main browser and discard them on quit in all others:

What exactly is it that distorts the Google results in SE's favour? Searching for answers via that search engine itself might indicate that I do not know the correct terms for this problems to yield something useful in the hits. But I suspect that it might be along the lines of SE-cookies, SE sharing data with Google, Google-cookies/search history, something else?

Naturally, this is a "service" that I do not want, for many reasons. Increased privacy, more unbiased search results etc. The SE-story is mainly just an example that users here might replicate easily.

So, how can that automatic, personalised result skewing be avoided, while still using Google?

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What exactly is it that distorts the Google results in SE's favour?

There are 50+ factors (called 'signals' by Google) used to determine search results. Beside specific search queries, it's really hard to have identical sorting with everyone. As reference, the top factors in personalizing search results are:

  • Location
  • Search History
  • Web History
  • Social Networks

(source)

You can also have a look at the paper "Asymptotic Analysis for Personalized Web Search", here.

So, how can that automatic, personalised result skewing be avoided?

Change your Google Search settings:

You need to be signed-in to your Google account to disable personal results.

  • Turn off personal search:
    To see general results on a specific search, after the search just click the globe near the upper right corner of the search results page. This will hide personal results. Hide personal results button

  • Turn off personal search for all searches:

    1. Go to Google search and click on the gear icon in the upper right corner and click "Search settings." You need to be signed-in to your Google account to make any changes.
    2. Scroll down to the section marked "Personal results" and click on "Do not use personal results."
    3. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click Save.
  • Also, the pws=0 parameter:
    By adding it to the end of a Google query URL &pws=0, you can theoretically remove history-based personalization. eg. https://www.google.com/?q=secinfo&pws=0

How to avoid personalized results:

As far as we know, Google is using a super set of factors to personalize you, but the followings solutions probably is a good start:

  • Anonymity Networks / VPN:
    As pointed out by @forest, using Google's search engine within an Anonymity Network (such as Tor) will provide -to a certain extent- non-personalized results. The data will still be localized by the approximate geolocation of exit-node's IP address.

  • Using Tails:
    An anonymous operating systems, such as Tails, are designed to be used from USB stick or DVD independently of the computer's original OS. A clean OS that all connections to the Internet are forced to go through Tor, would eliminate -still, mostly of- the factors that personalize you.


Also, it's interesting to read Google's public Search Liaison's tweets about this topic (discussion):

FYI, personalization of results is very light. Most people searching in the same language and same location will see largely the same things. Location and language are far more influential about why results differ.

— (@dannysullivan) May 15, 2018

Our personalization of results is far, far less than commonly assumed, so it's not surprising.

— (@dannysullivan) August 21, 2018

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    If I recall correctly, Google still gives you personalized search results even with that disabled, just to a lesser extent and based on IP rather than Google account. – forest Dec 10 '18 at 10:39
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    @forest Yes, it's still possible the results will be personalized. Unfortunately, that's the best option available for now, as we'll never know the algorithm Google is using for provided results. (I'll included it into my answer) – mike Dec 10 '18 at 10:45
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    @mike I think the best option would be Tor or a VPN. – forest Dec 10 '18 at 10:47
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    @mike They do alternate a bit, but mostly by localizing the search to the approximate geolocation of the IP address (I often get search results relevant to Netherlands life, for example). – forest Dec 10 '18 at 10:59
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    @LangLangC , another good point, thanks for pointing out (I'll insert a note). That would be a great conversation of how Google separate signed in/out user's settings. As pointed out by forest, without an account the best option, for -as mush- un-personalized results, is using an anonymity network (such as Tor). – mike Dec 10 '18 at 11:07

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