Google risked drawing the ire of privacy advocates Dec. 4 by making its personalized search results available to all of its users, whether they are signed in or not.
Personalized search results take into account Google users’ search queries and clicks over time and attempt to surface results the algorithm feels will be more relevant and useful to users.
So, users who frequently search for Ruby Tuesday will likely see that restaurant and eateries like it higher in search results because Google has assigned a greater ranking for them based on users’ activity.
It will also help disambiguate searches for the same words that have different meanings. For example, personalized results help Google distinguish whether a user who enters the query “apple” is talking about the fruit or the company.
Giving users better results also boost the relevance of advertisements Google can serve users, making personalized search results a win for both provider and consumer.
Personalized results were previously served only to users who were signed into their Google account and had opted in to let Google track their Web History, or log of search queries and results. Going forward, personalized results will be offered to users whether they are signed in or not. Users must also now opt out of personalized results.
This is how it works. Google will continue to use Web History to personalize results for users who are signed in. Even when users are not signed in, Google will customize their search results based on past search information linked to a user’s computer Web browser using an anonymous cookie. Google stores up to 180 days of signed-out search activity linked to the browser’s cookie, including queries and results that are clicked.
Bryan Horling, Google software engineer, and Matthew Kulick, Google product manager, provided this assurance in a blog post:
““It’s completely separate from your Google Account and Web History (which are only available to signed-in users). You’ll know when we customize results because a ‘View customizations’ link will appear on the top right of the search results page. Clicking the link will let you see how we’ve customized your results and also let you turn off this type of customization.”“
Users who elect not to receive personalized results while signed in must turn off Web History and remove it from their Google account. To do that, users must be signed into their account. They then must click the My Account link from the Google homepage, click Edit next to “My products” and then click Delete Web History.
While Google is being very clear and transparent about how this all works and how to obliterate search history entirely, it doesn’t explain that the goal is to position Google’s search experience in such a way as to serve users more relevant ads, enabling Google to make more money.
By hedging the privacy quotient in Web search, Google is setting itself up for some loud barking by privacy watchdogs who already feel Google takes too many liberties with users’ info. For example, Google provoked more criticisms than compliments with its Google Dashboard announcement last month, and that service was designed to give users more control over their Google data.
It’s already started. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, told the New York Times:
““The key point is that Google is now tracking users of search who have specifically chosen not to log in to a Google account. They are obliterating one of the few remaining privacy safeguards for Google services.”“
With each baby step, Google is tempting fate with agencies such as the Department of Justice, which is increasingly scrutinizing the company’s behavior regarding its search and other Web services, such as the Google Book Search deal.