Selective intelligence

by Eszter Hargittai on March 28, 2004

There are clearly some very smart folks behind Google given that they provide us with a great service and continually add useful features. That said, at times I am surprised by some of the decisions. Should they be placing their machine intelligence over user preferences? I am surfing the Web in Budapest. When I try to go to, I am redirected to I change the URL because I prefer to see the site in English. Fine. Then I run a search using English words and get Adwords Sponsored Links on the right in Hungarian. The rest of the interface is in English as are all of the results, but the ads are not. (Granted, the one term that matched the search term “domain” was in the ads, but every other word was in Hungarian.) Geography does not equal language preference or knowledge, especially when the user has already signaled so. It seems getting meaningful ads would be in the interest of both Google and its Adwords clients, why this decision then? (I commented on something very similar a year ago and although it seems some progress may have been made, need for improvement remains.)



Scott Sanders 03.28.04 at 1:26 am

Unless Google’s developers read this blog, it may stay that way, too. Hint, hint.


lazyman 03.28.04 at 2:13 am

If you follow the “Language Tools” link that’s right next to the search form submit button, you’ll see a bunch of preferences you can set with respect to languages. If you follow the “Preferences” link, which leads to, you’ll see that the functionality you desire is there. Unless I missed something …


arthur 03.28.04 at 2:37 am

Google makes a sensible business decision. Most U.S. advertisers have no interest in reaching an audience in Hungary, where the advertised products won’t be available. In general, web advertisers hate the idea that many of the eyeballs they reach are out of the physical range. On the other hand, Budapest advertisers do want to reach those Hungarians who web surf in English, since most of them also speak Hungarian and shop locally.


neil 03.28.04 at 4:46 am

I agree with arthur. Geography does not equal language preference, but it indicates it, and advertising is not an exact science. This policy is probably the best they have found for delivering meaningful ads.


Dan Levine 03.28.04 at 8:38 am

One thing I accidentally discovered while trying to stop the redirection to on which Google insists (at least for me,) I discovered that performs no redirection.


Kenny Easwaran 03.28.04 at 9:48 am

Actually, if you’re using an internet cafe or something, many users ahead of you have probably changed various settings both on the computer and in the google cookie indicating that they prefer things in Hungarian. Thus, your change on a few things may not have overrided all the other user selection pressure towards Hungarian. So they may be listening to the (inconsistent) user as best they can. Perhaps a setting for public computers would be better though.


eszter 03.28.04 at 9:51 am

Arthur, as I mentioned, my query included “domain”, which means it may have to do with domain registration (and that’s what the ads were for). Generic top level domain registration is precisely the type of service that is globally available no matter the registrar. (In fact, I think the registrar I use is based in the UK even though I’m based in the US.)

I know of no studies that show what percent of users in Hungary speak Hungarian. From my stay here this time my impression is that more and more foreigners are populating this town and no, they do not all speak Hungarian.

When signing up for the Adwords service (last time I checked) Google does not ask to what language queries you want your ads to come up. Rather, they ask in what countries your want your ads to be displayed. Maybe they should be asking about both.


eszter 03.28.04 at 9:58 am

Lazyman – thanks, but I know how to set preferences in Google. That wasn’t my point. My point was a comment about default options and assumptions systems make even when the user has expressed certain preferences already. My research on Web-user skill suggests that few people know to tweak things for their preferences usually so default settings matter quite a bit.

Kenny – good point. In this case, however, I’m using my parents’ machine at home and they have not changed any default settings.. and most of their searches are in English as well. (And again, I doubt many users would have changed all sorts of settings at a public machine, but yes, such a machine may suggest a confusing user profile based on its history.)


Brett Bellmore 03.28.04 at 12:07 pm

Most U.S. advertisers have no interest in reaching an audience in Hungary, where the advertised products won’t be available.

Funny, I’ve had no trouble ordering product online from Hungary, and getting them delivered to the US. (Warsaw pact surplus electronics components, in this instance, in case you’ve got a need for vacuum tubes to fix that antique radio.)


Barry 03.28.04 at 2:20 pm

Keith M Ellis, a while back (on this blog?) had commented that the genius of Google was that it gave you what you wanted, with nothing extra. Most websites cram as many ads as possible, with the result of cognitively jamming the user. IMHO, and in Keith’s opinion (IIRC), Google has been able to avoid this because it’s been a non-profit. It didn’t have to justify quarterly results, but was trying to build a business.

Google’s IPO will be an experiment, of what happens when a market leader enters the profit market as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both rational degradation (to make more money) and irrational degradation (because decisions are being made by people thinking about short-term profits and short-term stock prices).


Mrs Tilton 03.28.04 at 3:15 pm


strictly speaking Google isn’t a ‘non-profit’. (That term has a specific technical meaning.) Rather, it is closely held. It might or might not make a profit, but it is under no obligation to report on its finances to the public. If it goes through with its long-awaited IPO, then it will of course have to give pretty thorough disclosure of its finances, both in the offering prospectus and on a regular basis thereafter.


Scorpio 03.28.04 at 5:15 pm

Pardon me? You are complaining because the ads don’t work?



Keith M Ellis 03.28.04 at 5:22 pm

Did I say that? But, yeah. Google has been able to get away with doing things that a publicly held company cannot. It will be interesting to see what happens after their IPO.

As someone who worked for a start-up that had a fantastically successful IPO, I can say that going public in general and particularly during the era was, in my opinion, distorting and created forces that acted against the long-term health of the company. On the other hand, even after the crash and having still yet never earning a profit, the company has a few hundred million in cash and is a survivor. So, hey, what do I know?

But privately owned companies can look to the long-term while publicly held companies face tremendous pressure for short term results. I think Google has been successful because they’ve been far-seeing and very focused (and disciplined). That may change.


neil 03.28.04 at 9:11 pm

Google is in no sense a non-profit; in fact, they claim to be one of the very few Internet startups which turned a profit early and consistently. They were claiming profitability in early 2001, but as mrs tilton notes, their finances are not public, so it might not be true.


pilgrim 03.29.04 at 3:31 pm

Just to add a little bit to this: One reason Google may redirect, or even attempt to override, a user’s desire to go to the “main” search page at, is because of the differing legal requirements of various countries. If you are connecting from an ISP in France, for example, Google and Yahoo will do their darnedest to keep you from accessing their full content, but instead try to redirect you to the cleaned up French versions. (If you’ll recall, Yahoo faced a major lawsuit and worse for not banning all French people from accessing auctions sites where Nazi memorabilia were sold — LICRA v. Yahoo.)


eszter 03.29.04 at 4:07 pm

Pilgrim – I would think Google would try to make sure it doesn’t serve up certain results in response to a query based on the IP address of the user not which Google version he or she chooses. With respect to this concern, using info about IP address would seem to be the better way to go.


Raj 03.30.04 at 11:01 am

I work for a large mutinational company & since a recent network upgrade if I type in I get instantly referred to (I am based in scotland). Presumably our network makes google think I am in france. However, if I type in I stay there and am not referred.

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