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What Google knows about us...without even searching.

What Google knows about us...without even searching

Have you ever wondered why Google almost always seems to come up with exactly the websites you are looking for?

The massive amount of computing power available to the western world's most used search engine is part of the reason. But there is also another explanation. Google actually stores the searches you have done in the previous 180 days and the results you have clicked on. It knows, for example, whether your preferred news site is Timesonline or the BBC, and uses this information when it delivers your results.

Google says the aim is to provide better search results to its customers. But by building a better profile of your web activity, it can also target advertisements more precisely.

Google is not alone in gathering more information about its customers' online behaviour and preferences. In the June 2011 issue of the Financial Times Waters reports how companies are using information from smart phones, social-networking sites and other aspects of the modern digital economy to build up an ever-more-complete picture of individuals.

US retailer Walmart, for example, has previously been able to gather information only about people's purchasing histories and browsing habits. But it has recently bought Kosmix, which filters the vast amount of information available on Twitter. As result, it will be able to tap into information about people's personal interests and preferences.

Combining details from different sources can lead to particularly useful leads. Photographs and sounds recorded by smart-phone handsets can be merged with, for example, information from the Global Positioning System to identify where a person is and who he or she is with. The potential this would offer to deliver a set of customised adverts - for local restaurants or cinemas, for example - is considerable.

For reasons such as this, most executives say they want more and more information. But the sheer quantity of information can sometimes undermine effective decision making. One example is from the world of civil aviation.

An Air France A330 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with the loss of all 228 people on board in 2009 because it was flying too slowly to maintain height during a storm. But the vast quantities of automatically generated - and sometimes contradictory - information that were fed into the cockpit by the aircraft's computers in the final minutes of the flight failed to make this underlying problem clear to the pilots. As a result, they tried to lift the nose of the aircraft, to gain height, rather than dip the plane, to pick up speed.

In issue 3 of the 2011 MIT Sloan Management Review Davenport and Hagerman Snabe point out that what executives need is often not more information, but the right information. The authors argue that the real aim should not be faster information but faster decision making - and they aren't the same things.

Executives tend to request more information than they can use, but the cycle time of decision making and not the speed of information flow is often the bottleneck.

‘While it is critical to identify what information is needed, it is just as important to deliver it at the right time,' the authors conclude.

Providing it may require changes to both human and technical capabilities - but those changes could make all the difference in having the correct information to avert a catastrophe.