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New Google feature adds a personal touch to search results

Google Inc. has unsheathed a new weapon in its battle with Facebook Inc.: It’s including more of your personal information in search results.

Starting Tuesday, users logged into Google while doing English-language searches began seeing a new option to get more personal results.

The Internet search giant is billing the new feature Search plus Your World. It’s blending information such as photos, comments and news posted on its Google+ social network into users’ search results.

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As many as 1 in 4 people log into Google while searching the Web. That means those users will see search results that are customized to their interests and connections, say, a photo of the family dog or a friend’s recommendation for a restaurant.

“This makes you the center of your search experience,” Google Fellow Amit Singhal said in an interview.

This is a major step in Google’s long-held ambition to create a personal search engine that knows its users so well it delivers results tailored to them.

It’s also an attempt to catch up to social networking giant Facebook, which, with more than 800 million users, has much deeper insights into who and what its users care about. Facebook is weeks away from filing plans for a $100-billion initial public offering, the most highly anticipated tech stock offering since Google in 2004.

“It’s one of the most significant things Google has ever done in search,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com who tracks Google.

But the new feature promotes Google+ over its rivals and could encourage more people to join the fledgling network. And that could heighten regulatory scrutiny at a time when Google is already the subject of antitrust investigations in the U.S and Europe.

Google has said it wants to include information from Facebook but is not permitted access to all of the information on the site. It also wants to make the user experience “consistent,” Singhal said.

But some observers are dubious. “It makes you question if Google is doing the best thing for the searcher or the best thing for Google,” Sullivan said.

Twitter Inc. complained about the new Google feature in a public statement Tuesday.

“For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results any time they wanted to find something on the Internet,” Twitter spokesman Matt Graves said. “We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone.”

Facebook declined to comment.

The effect of Google’s latest search feature may be limited — at least for now. The 6-month-old Google+ has 40 million users, a fraction of its major rivals.

Google is also not the first search engine to do this. Microsoft’s Bing, which has an alliance with Facebook, has been tapping some information shared on Facebook since May. But Google is attracting more attention because of its dominance in search. It handles as many as two-thirds of all search queries in the U.S.

When a user is logged into Google or Google+, Google will now tap information from Google+ and photos from its photo-sharing service Picasa, to deliver personalized search results. In the future it will also incorporate other Google services.

Seeing how much information Google gathers could make some people uneasy, Sullivan said. Google has tried to assuage privacy concerns by switching to technology that encrypts all of its search results.

Users can turn off the personal results by changing a setting in their personal preferences. They can also turn off personal results on a search-by-search basis by clicking on an icon of the globe on the results page and not the icon of a person.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com


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