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Can Search Engines Track My Searches?

Question: Can Google (or any other search engine for that matter) accumulate data on my searches or internet activity if I don’t have a Google account?

Yes, they can. There are a couple of interesting ways that they gather this information.

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Your digital fingerprint

When you access any website, whether it’s a search engine or even Ask Leo!, the server gets a fair amount of information from your connection to that server and from your browser. This could be the IP address that you’re at, the type of browser you’re using and its settings, any cookies set by prior visits to that site, and possibly some other information.

The combination of information sent turns out to be almost, but not quite, unique. Even if you’re using an almost identical system to another user that combination of information still has enough differences that make it unique to you.

That creates what you might consider a digital fingerprint.

Even if it doesn’t identify you specifically (which we’ll talk about that in a minute), a site uses your visit to determine that the person who was here yesterday looking for this is here today looking for something else.

SearchingIdentifying you from information that doesn’t identify you

The idea of a digital fingerprint gets interesting when you start talking about searches. We naturally reveal a lot about ourselves by what we look for when we search.

Some years ago, a search engine made search information available to researchers. The company believed they filtered and anonymized the data to remove every possible personally identifiable piece of information (like IP addresses and cookies) from the results before they gave it to the researchers.

Nonetheless, the researchers used the actual phrases that people were searching for to identify a few specific individuals who had performed those searches.

Should I be worried?

That is as interesting as it may be scary. Personally, I don’t worry about anything like that.  I say it often, but regular users like us are just not that interesting.

These days, it feels like true anonymity is almost impossible.

Using a browser and a search engine – even one without the concept of an “account” to associate specifically with you – you’re almost always leaving a fairly interesting trail of information that can be analyzed and cross referenced in interesting ways.

So, yes, search engines absolutely can and probably do “track” you, in the sense that they have the information to say that “this person is doing that”. What they may or may not have is enough information to say “this person is YOU”.

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3 comments on “Can Search Engines Track My Searches?”

  1. If I use most any search engine to look for a particular product or service then every web site I visit…for perhaps the next few months…has prominent ads for what I searched. And now we read Gmail is searching our *mail* for key words, perhaps to tailor our Google searches…(?) These are for marketing, not some malevolent purpose, but clearly a lot of information is know about “us” (or at least what our computer has been used for). To many of us, that’s more than a little creepy.

    Those who have general concerns about “privacy” or who do not want in-your-face ads for things they searched in recent months should try Ixquick, the “World’s Most Private Search Engine.” It’s a metasearch engine that anonymously searches through other engines for you, simultaneously, and has an unusually clean, powerful interface. Filters are provided to narrow your search, even to the point of displaying only .org and/or .gov URLs, for example. Its “Settings” let you establish content rules to exclude certain material from the results, opt for https-only searches (I do), or even use their free proxy service for maximum privacy. And there’s NO tracking, cookies, or history, period. Their “Advanced” search, with the most optional filters and features, is at this URL:

  2. @Leo
    “It’s nothing to worry about unless you have some critical need for privacy.”

    Can be annoying and embarrassing all the same ads or real estate ads constantly foisted upon you just because at some stage a search was done …not to mention the genre of “dancing girls” et al

    A cleaner such as ccleaner will eliminate ‘”the problem” albeit temporarily.


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