Context is King

There are two essential concepts of location for the World Wide Web. One is you: the individual, the reader, the writer, the customer, the singular entity. The other is the World.

I live and work mostly in the U.S. I also speak English. My French, German and Spanish are all too minimal to count unless I happen to be in a country that speaks one of those languages. When I’m in one of those places, as I am now in France, I do my best to learn as much of the language as I can. But I’m still basically an English speaker.

So, by default, when I’m on the Web my language is English. My location might be France, or Denmark or somewhere else, but when I’m searching for something the language I require most of the time is English. That’s my mental location.

So it drives me nuts that Google sends me to, even when I log into iGoogle and get my personalized Google index page. When I re-write the URL so it says, Google re-writes it as, no matter what. On iGoogle I can’t find a way to set my preferred language, or my virtual location if it’s not where I am right now. I can’t do that even when I have Google translate, instantly, in my Google Chrome browser, the page text to English. (I’m sure there’s a hack, and I would appreciate it if somebody would tell me. But if there is why should it be so hard?)

Bing comes up all-French too, but at the bottom of the page, in small white type, it says “Go to Bing in English”. Nice.

So now, here in Paris, I’m using Bing when I want to search in English, and Google when I want to search for local stuff. Which is a lot, actually. But I miss searching in English on Google. I could ask them to fix that, but I’d rather fix the fact that only they can fix that. Depending on suppliers to do all the work is a bug, not a feature.

What matters is context. I’m tired of having companies guess at what my context is. I know what my contexts are. I know how they change. I want my own ways of changing contexts, and of informing services of what those contexts are. In some cases I don’t mind their guessing. In a few I even appreciate it. But in too many cases their guesses only get in the way. The Google search case is just one of them.

(disclosure: I’ve done work for Phil) gives a talk in which he provides a brief history of e-commerce. It goes, “1995: Invention of the cookie. The End.” Thanks to the , we have contexts — but only inside each company’s silo. We can’t provide our own contexts except to the degree that each company’s website allows it. And they’re all different. This too is a bug, not a feature. (Just like carrying around a pile of loyalty cards and key tabs is a bug. Hey, I know more about who and what I’m loyal to than any company does — and I’d like my own ways of expressing that.)

At this moment it is commonly believed that the contexts that matter most are “social”. This is defined as who my friends are, and where I happen to be right now. This information is held almost entirely by commercial services: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Foursquare, Groupon, Blippy and so on. Not by you or me. Not by individuals, and not independently of all those services. This too is a bug. Who your friends and other contacts are is indeed a context, but it should be one that you control, not some company. Your data, and how you organize it, should be the independent variable, and the data you share with these services should be the dependent variables.

Some of us in the community (including Phil and his company, ) are working on context provided by individuals. In the long run these contexts can work for any or all commercial and non-commercial institutions we deal with. I expect to see some of this work become manifest over the next year. Stay tuned.

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24 Responses to Context is King

  1. Rob Szarka says:

    Interesting. You’d think that Google would use the giant clue your browser is offering it, i.e. the Accept-Language HTTP header, but it just totally ignores it in favor of an inferior signal like an IP address…

  2. Doc Searls says:

    Good point, Rob. Could it be that Google thinks that way it has a better chance off selling me something through local retail advertising?

  3. Flip says:

    English is the language in more places than the US.

    Did you try the UK url?

  4. sims says:

    Would using a proxy help?

    Not ideal, not a solution to the major issue but maybe useful in some situations when ya just gotta have it.

  5. Yes this drives me nuts too. I’ve done a million transactions/instructions in English with Google and then it suddenly thinks I’ve changed nationality like I don’t move about a bit.

    The easiest way is to go to old school main page and there’s a ‘in English’ link next to the box.

    But finding that out in a foreign language browser isn’t amusing.

  6. Doc Searls says:

    Flip, I tried the UK url. Same thing happens. I’m in France, so I get the French Google.

  7. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Charles. That works. But it’s a two-step process. I go to plain old, which becomes Then I click on “classique”, where, after ten seconds pass, other choices appear. One is in English. Clearly they don’t want me to make that choice. But I make it, and now I’m ready to start. Bing is easier.

  8. Brent Ashley says:

    Your best chance is a proxy, however if you have almost any server stateside, you don’t necessarily need a proxy service.

    If you can ssh into a box in the US, use the -D switch to define a port on your local machine that becomes a dynamic SOCKS proxy out the other side. e.g.:

    ssh -D 8888

    And then when you leave that ssh session running and point your browser’s SOCKS proxy to localhost port 8888, your web traffic is all redirected through the other machine.

    A bit hackish, but the most useful solutions always are.

  9. Brent Ashley says:

    Oh, and of course an added benefit is that all your traffic is encrypted. (except DNS requests, although there is a solution link in the updates section of this informative page:

  10. Mic Edwards says:

    Try …

    I am led to believe the ncr on the end stands for ‘no country recognition’.

    Works for me in Vietnam!

  11. Mic Edwards says:

    Also, in Vietnam, we have this cute little line near the bottom of the version of the Google homepage: offered in: Tiếng Việt français 中文(繁體)

    That would include English if I was using the Vietnamese (Tiếng Việt) version.

  12. Mic Edwards says:

    Oh … and cookies remember my language and country state …

  13. Doc, I had written a rant on that exact issue some time ago, intending to post it on my blog, but never got around to it. So now I just tried, and of course Blogger is down (and btw it’s showing me Arabic when I want English!). So here it is:

    Do you really think you know better than your customers?

    Here’s a now all-too-classic scenario: you’re traveling, you fire up your browser and go to Google. It’s in a language you can’t understand, let alone determine which direction to start reading from.

    Why is that? Because Google, like so many others today, thinks it knows what you want. Well, in this case it is badly mistaken. By this case I mean what is known in the jargon as “IP geolocalization”, or geoloc in short. Which, to regular people, translates to “determining your geographical location based on some parameter”, here the parameter being your computer or phone’s IP address.

    Determining my location is okay, but if you act on that, please don’t make it extremely hard for me to fix your guesses when they’re wrong. When using Google, it’s now possible to scroll down somewhere on the page and find a link to good old in English. By the Way Mr. Google, you could have first used my preferred language setting in the browser to at least show me text I can understand. But I digress.
    For Google, in general it’s relatively cheap to undo their mistake: it’s a small page, unless you’ve used the browser search box in which case it’ll be hard to find the link that reverts back to

    However, for others, fixing the site’s mistake extremely hard. Take the case of Electronic Arts and their site. I have an account with them, with a billing address in the US and its related payment option. Unfortunately, when I’m in France I am directed in all cases to the French store, and when I’m in the UK to the UK store. Now I understand the logic if the idea was for me to ship some goods to those countries, but I don’t want to. I either want to buy digital download goods, or ship them to my US address. Well, it’s absolutely impossible for me to do so: I can’t switch to the US store, and I can’t use my US address in the French or UK store. Game over. Good luck EA, you lost a sale or two.

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  15. Doc Searls says:

    Excellent report, Henri. Again, I think Google’s thinking here is commercial. They’re an advertising company and want customers for local retailers. I don’t know how else to account for it, especially given the “huge clue” Rob wrote about in the first comment above.

  16. Bertil Hatt says:

    I don’t think Google ever submitted commercial interest to user experience; in that particular case, there has been far more French people who don’t know how to tweak their poorly configured or US-bough devices than US tourist geeky enough to use mobile web abroad yet. With reasonable roaming costs, things are a-changing, but the problem is still too marginal for Google engineers to have noticed — and if they have, you’ll have to assume the NCR option, albeit discreet, matches your concern best.
    Most people abroad (well, not most, but those who work abroad on extended period and face that concern the most) have a hard time switching from their native language to local one all the time; how do you search for a “Dinner” in a French-configured search-engine when in Memphis? (spelling corrected to “diner” and recognized as a verb) — so Google default does seem a good one to me.
    Regarding international versions being visible, I’m not sure all users in the US will be thrilled to have a visible button for that… Granted, those are not your friends, but they are Google users. It’s the same thing here.

    I live next to the Louvre, where no other local live, and no one speaks French in the street, so Google could have a small Geo-IP exception here ;).
    BTW Doc: if you need anything, don’t hesitate to contact me; I’d be happy to help with any local needs.

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  18. Google, bing, and others likely do this out of an abundance of caution, in order to make sure that they’re complying with French language laws.

  19. Doc Searls says:

    That makes sense, Joseph. I wonder if anybody from Google can weigh in on that.

  20. Mike Grace says:

    Amen! I feel the same way all the time. Really look forward to what the VRM community and Kynetx will be able to do to work towards a solution for these every day problems. Great post! : )

  21. During my recent trip to China I was trying to use Google Maps for navigation. Unfortunately when I started the application on my phone, the map that showed up was in Chinese!

    I was looking for a way for changing the language settings but I failed 🙁

    Currently on the Google News there is a weather section. It gives me temperature forecast in Fahrenheits, while I’d prefer in Celcius. Again, I see no easy way to change it 🙁

    Definitely relying on geolocation information is often a mistake if changing results is not possible.

  22.’s business model depends on being able to protect the IP interests of companies that license their video content to Hulu. That being said, I can’t believe that would be ahead of Google in this regard, especially given their history with China.

    I appreciated the link provided by Joseph Bou-Younes to the Toubon Law – I’m reminded of France’s early work with the Minitel, and that the evolution of the Internet may have less to do with technology and more to do with politicians as ICANN and other governance functions migrate away from purely US-based institutions.

    Going forward, I posit a “Translation Turing Test” – where you’re able to visit a foreign country, interact with local services using your mobile phone, and not be able to tell if you’re working with a computer or a live person.

    The French position on digital:

  23. Ben Felten says:


    As a Frenchman working in English from France, this used to drive me nuts as well. I’ve found a partial workaround for the search engine: in my iGoogle settings, I force the search engine to search English language pages in priority. Then I have revert to if I want to search french language pages.

    Drives my wife nuts when she’s searching, but it serves my purpose. Still, I agree with you that it’s a completely backwards way of using ‘context’.

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