Somebody I follow on Twitter posted something about taking the bar exam, and, as I often do, I had the urge to Google the term I had just read (even though I know what the bar exam is... I was just interested, okay?).
Search 1) "bar exam"
Okay, I'm looking at the results, and I'm sort of baffled to see the Florida bar exam as the second result (I put the light yellow highlight there. The top highlight was automatically on the screen). Hmm. Florida. That's where I live. Coincidence? Is our bar exam really special or something?
I decided to further investigate this matter.
Search 2) "bar exam" (not logged in to Google)
I realized that I had been logged into my Google account (and on Chrome) when I did my first search. Google knows a ridiculous amount of info about me, so I figured that by being signed in, Google Search could have known my zip code and artificially altered the results to show me stuff that is "more relevant" to what I wanted to find. (Which is not necessarily what I want to happen when I search. For local establishments, yes. But in general, I'm just interested to know what the most popular search results are...)
So, to be safe, I open a new Firefox browser window and avoid signing into Google (while writing this, I just realized that I have Gmail notifier on my desktop... this could be affecting things... I will test that hypothesis soon...).
For Search 2, I get... The. Same. Exact. Page. (But interestingly, no colored ad at the top of the results?)
Okay. So either Florida bar exam is really a top result, or else Google still knows where I live without being signed in. Fine.
Search 3) "bar exam" through an anonymous proxy
I learned about anonymous proxies over a year ago -- they are servers hosted in different places that allow you to first connect to someone's established server and then connect to the internet. Theoretically, this would allow you to connect to sites that have been blocked or restricted at your IP address (you would be sort of adopting someone else's IP for a while... I think that's how it works).
So I decided to search through an anonymous proxy. I Googled and tried out a few proxies on on the first page of results...
This site called zend2.com (pic above) did not have the Florida bar exam in the first three results (it was still on the first page of results, though).
Neither did the-cloak.com (pic above). But you'll notice something else... at the top right, you can see that the number of returned search items is significantly lower through these proxies than it was normally. 936,000 results for the proxies; 2,260,000 normal returns.
Search 4) another anonymous proxy
It only took me one more try to find another anonymous proxy that would return the original number of results. I also did it in Internet Explorer, just for kicks.
Good. Number of results same. This anonymous proxy was probably located at a server that was nowhere near me and it came up with no Florida bar exam in the first three results (but Florida bar exam was still on the first page of results... near the bottom)... wait a second. Where is this anonymous proxy hosted? Since I think that living in Florida might have been an influence in my original search, perhaps this new location will have some bizarre influence on...
You've got to be kidding me.
The anonymous proxy based in Illinois... had a paid ad result from... Illinois bar exam.
So, in conclusion...
-Google definitely changes results based on where you live. (I'm no professional scientist, but I think I can conclude that.)
-Google might change results without you even signed in.
Weird, but, I guess, understandable.
(Note: I don't feel like checking on the Gmail notifier influence on this effect. Nor do I wish to test this further right now. But let me know if you find out anything else about this, or if you think I'm an idiot for not knowing about this to begin with.)