Why Google Live Search Creeps Me Out

Contrary to popular reports, reports of the Web's demise have been somewhat exaggerated. But we may soon be forced to rename it The Google.

Today's example of search giant excess: SEO wonk Rob Ousbey has captured video of a Google experiment that displays search results that change as you type. Here it is, complete with a zippy soundtrack that makes it look a lot like those Google Search Story commercials.

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In other words, Google is recording your keystrokes as you type them, feeding those strokes into its massive distributed brain, and displaying results in real time before you even type the next letter.

Google has confirmed that Ousbey's observations are correct, and in fact just one of 50 to 200 search experiments it's running at any particular time, according to a Google spokesbot. Apparently Ousbey was one of a handful of people selected to be a Google guinea pig for this. No word yet on how many others got chosen at random for this feature or if Google has any plans to release it into the wild.

Yes, it's cool. But does anyone else out there find this, well, a little creepy? Technically, Google already captures your keystrokes as soon as you hit Enter or click the Search button, but somehow this feels more invasive to me.

On one hand, the concept isn't new. Keyloggers have been used for years by both good guys and bad: Law enforcement agencies have used loggers as a kind of keyboard wiretap, while malware authors have used them to steal logons and passwords.

But I can't name any examples where either of them have captured keystrokes in real time and acted on them. I certainly can't name any websites that do this. (If you know of some, please email me or post them below.)

A lot of blogger types are talking about this from the perspective of "isn't this cool/annoying?" and "gosh, I hope it won't cut into my Google AdSense revenues." But I find the bigger implications of this both profound and disturbing. To wit:

  • Google is experimenting on us, all the time. When you least expect it, you're elected.
  • Google is watching what some of us type. Maybe they're doing it right now. (And by the way, "porn" is spelled with just one "r.")
  • If Google can "watch" you type inside its search engine, what's to stop it from doing the same thing inside Gmail, Buzz, Calendar, or any of its other products? (Cue the Evil Genius theme music here.)
  • If Google can do this, who else can?
  • If Google can do this, what's to stop law enforcement from using this to spy on people's search queries in real time?
  • Just how smart/scary are these guys?

I think I'm going to hide under my bed for a while.

I've written before about how Google's enormous power has warped the Web, and not necessarily in a good way. Virtually every news story or blog post, headline, deck, caption and subhead is now written with Google in mind -- which is to say, dumbed down for a search engine that's easily fooled by repetition and the alleged "wisdom" of the crowd.

Worse, Google drives coverage; popular topics (like those with "iPhone" in the headline) get more attention than they truly deserve, while worthy stories that are less likely to drive traffic get short shrift or are entirely ignored. Hence, everyone on the Web tends to writes about the same things, over and over and over. (Guilty on all counts here, too.)

Google continues to swallow up smaller companies in different verticals and move into new markets -- from mobile to desktop and tablet operating systems, not to mention Google TV. It's even allegedly taking on the other 800-pound gorilla of the InterWebs, Facebook, with its Google Me social network.

Google's apparent ability to watch us and react in real time is not making me feel more warmly toward the company. It leads me to the inevitable question: Is it time to break up The Googlopoly before it swallows the Web?

Is Google too powerful or is Cringely too paranoid? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "In Google's search experiment, we're all guinea pigs," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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