With the growing commercial use of AI, the platforms we use daily are becoming more and more customized. When a social media platform recommends the best content for you, it's distilling out things that you don't like — providing you with that infamous echo chamber effect. Of course, this isn't constrained solely to social networks. Google Search uses AI, as well. In fact, the tech giant has just announced that it's adding several "intelligent" recommendation features to its original product, with a focus on what it calls "longer [search] sessions," that span multiple days. In the announcement blog post, Google calls this a "fundamental transformation" — but is it one that could harm the discovery of different sources and viewpoints?
Perhaps the most significant change is the addition of activity cards. These will pop up under your search bar when you're looking for information on a subject you've googled in the past. The card features pages you've already visited and previous search terms you've used on this topic.
Activity card displaying recently visited pages relevant to search
This is undoubtedly a useful tool. It's frustrating to lose a link because you can't remember the exact search term you used before — with activity cards, this issue is fixed. More than that, the intent is to thematically connect the dots across multiple searches to anticipate the information you're really working towards. However, its ramifications may be more far-reaching than we can imagine at the moment. It narrows your travel on Google Search and makes you just a bit less likely to stray out further into the wilderness of the internet. Instead, the new cards make it easy to stick to safe bets — the places you've been before.
Google promises you'll have full control over the feature, though. You can remove results from your history, pause seeing the card, or choose not to see it all. Still, when Google makes a feature change, hundreds of millions worldwide use it immediately; the feature will have a major effect on search patterns when it rolls out "later this year."
The Mountain View search giant also announced a new "dynamic organization" of search results (shown in header image). Users will now begin seeing the most common and relevant subtopics when it comes to certain broad searches. Google's example: when you search "pug," the subtopics are specifically relevant to that breed — you won't see the same subtopics for a "Yorkshire Terrier" search. Additionally, those subtopics will stay up to date, changing to become more relevant to that topic. This is a less personalized update than activity cards but still makes for a more specific, funneled set of results.
Collections — the Search feature that lets you keep track of content you've visited and return to it later — is also getting a few new features. You can add content from an activity card directly to Collections, and Google has added content suggestions, based on what you search for and save — sort of like Instagram's Explore page. These changes are rolling out later this fall.
Collections in Google Search
All of the updates are enabled by a new layer in Google's Knowledge Graph, the knowledge base that makes connections between people, places, things, and facts about them. The new "Topic" layer connects topics and subtopics. Google says it looks at patterns to understand how the subtopics relate to each other, so it can intelligently bring up the content you might want to see next.
Google ties all of this back to its announcement yesterday that Google Feed is now "Discover," and will be joining the Google Search homepage — a bold move in itself.
"All of this enables experiences that make it easier than ever to explore your interests, even if you don't have your next search in mind," writes the company.
But all this is predicated on the idea that you know exactly what you want to see. What if you're still making up your mind? An even better question might be: what if you need to see something that challenges your preconceived notions? Now, more than ever, the internet should be an open place. Hopefully, "intelligent" features like these don't box us in further.