Delete my Google's Search History?
February 23, 2012 2:11 PM   Subscribe

What are the benefits of Google's Search History? As I understand it, Google is changing it's privacy policy so that my personal search history (which was previously kept separate), will now be tied to my Google profile for other Google products (Google+, Gmail, Google Voice, etc.). In other words - my search history will now be associated with my actual name and personal phone number. So - I'm thinking about removing my search history, but I don't know what I'd be giving up. According to Google - it uses my history to "personalize" my search results. But - does this really make a difference?

As it happens, a history of my Google searches probably isn't TOO embarrassing or incriminating. Nevertheless, I'm not too thrilled about this; I'd definitely prefer that this information was private.

Thanks to this article (, it looks like it's relatively easy to remove your search history if you want to.

So - I'm trying to weigh the pros and cons.

On one hand - I'd definitely prefer to have my search history remain anonymous.

On the other hand - I want my search results to be as relevant and focused as possible. Google claims that it uses my personal history to do this. But, I have no way to judge how different "personalized" search results are from generic results.

(I've tried running similar searches on Chrome, while logged in, and in Firefox, while not logged it. Results are occassionally a little different, but I'm hoping for a better understanding than what I glean from this simple, unscientific, anecdotal survey)

What do you think?

Many thanks in advance for your advice and insight.
posted by stuehler to Technology (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
In theory it's supposed to do things like be more likely to return basketball links, for me, if I type in "James Jones" because I read a lot of basketball stories on the web and James Jones is a player for the Miami Heat, while someone who looks for lots of movie information might get more links for James Earl Jones.

This is more useful if you have narrow interests that share words with more popular interests. So, when I type in "begs the question" I'm likely to get results focused on logical fallacies (I do a lot of philosophy related searches) instead of people using the phrase in non-philosophical contexts. ("Possible worlds" would be another good example, I'm more likely to be interested in metaphysics than sci-fi and personalized searches are therefore more likely to get me philosophy links that I'd find relevant.)

In practice, as you noticed, the results aren't very different. Although there is no reason, in principle, why personalized searches couldn't eventually come to look nothing like anonymous searches. As Google refines their algorithms, the results could certainly drift further and further apart.

In reality, Google's main motive is their profit margin. They couch it in terms of the benefits to you, but the primary benefit is their ability to target ads to you more accurately and thereby justify charging their clients more for ads.

I don't use personalized search (in fact I use duckduckgo most of the time).
posted by oddman at 2:32 PM on February 23, 2012

Response by poster: Oddman - thanks for your response!

That makes a lot of sense. I definitely understand how, in theory, Google could personalize my results to make them more focused and relevant.

I'd also expect that, over time, Google's algorithms (and thus, the relevance of my results) will get better and better.

I guess my specific question is, objectively - how much better are Google's personalized results right now?

The privacy issue is, for me, very significant. But, I work on a computer ALL DAY LONG, and probably average 10+ Google searches EVERY DAY.

So - I'm trying to figure out if my search results will be noticeably/significantly/objectively worse if I take the step of deleting my history.

Or - is Google just overstating the benefits in order to get me to sign onto this?
posted by stuehler at 2:44 PM on February 23, 2012

One thing I've noticed and it is somewhat helpful is when history is enabled Google will remind you you've visited a page in search results before. I don't know if when I searched for the term originally it was in the first position, but it was when I searched just now.

This is helpful if you're like me and google something then promptly forget it and/or not bookmark it. Seeing I visited as site before will jog my memory. Just as the search history can sometimes help me what I was up to.

Since I have Adblock on all of the time, I can't see if Google is serving more relevant ads. I'm not actually opposed to getting more targeted ads if I have to see them. Like that article about Target using its BI to send out ads to pregnant teens before their dad finds out, it can have utility.

Right now, the utility (a promise of more relevant search results) is worth what I'm paying (me giving up my privacy). If I no longer feel I'm getting my "money's" worth, I'll use someone else.

Or - is Google just overstating the benefits in order to get me to sign onto this?
That is marketing 101. Of course they're overstating the benefits because they want you to sign on. If no one signs up, they don't have a profitable product.
posted by birdherder at 2:51 PM on February 23, 2012

Just to underline birdherder's point, they also significantly increase the rank of links you've clicked before. Not only are links you've clicked before called out on the page, but they're pretty seriously pushed up in the ordering. Google knows (and independent research has confirmed) that people very often use google to re-find things. For many of us, the only way we know how to get back to all sorts of resources is to re-search for something. Having google remember what you clicked on last time you searched for that makes it easier to get back to the place you were before. Whether or not this feature is valuable for you depends a lot on whether you bookmark sites or not, and how often you're looking for new pages versus pages you've seen before. Personally, I'm sort of keen on it, but you may not miss it at all.
posted by heresiarch at 3:28 PM on February 23, 2012

There's a TED Talk, Eli Pariser: Beware online "filter bubbles" (previously on MeFi) that's relevant:
As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there's a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a "filter bubble" and don't get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. Eli Pariser argues powerfully that this will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.
Your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.
Additionally, some argue that this will just let Google (and any company they'd like to sell the information to) have a better idea of who you are. Mid-30s, male, single, three cats, a WoW subscription and searches for porn between 6-7am and 8-9pm? Sounds like you could use a fleshlight ad around those times.
posted by Brian Puccio at 3:41 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

One thing I've noticed and it is somewhat helpful is when history is enabled Google will remind you you've visited a page in search results before.

That link changing colour is due to the browser, not Google, as far as I know. I get it and I have web history disabled and am usually not logged in to a Google account. It might be due to some cookie that I allowed Google to have.

As someone who has never had web history enabled, I have no way of knowing what 'better' results I could have been seeing. But it's not like I get bad results.
posted by hoyland at 3:48 PM on February 23, 2012

Best answer: It's easy to compare Google results with and without personal search history. Just open an incognito window (I do this in Chrome) and compare with non-incognito results. Depending on what you're looking for there may be significant differences or none at all. To me it's useful to have both. I do think the personalized results are generally closer to what I'm looking for. But sometimes I want to know what the average person will see, for example when doing searches related to organizations I work for, so I use incognito mode.
posted by beagle at 3:54 PM on February 23, 2012

That link changing colour is due to the browser, not Google, as far as I know. I get it and I have web history disabled and am usually not logged in to a Google account. It might be due to some cookie that I allowed Google to have.

Sorry I didn't make it more clear. Of course the link changing color is something browsers have done since NCSA Mosaic. I was actually trying to demonstrate that on the link I had visited before Google added "You visited this page on 2/22/12" beneath the link description. Sure, it happens to have changed color but as a browser behavior it means I wouldn't see that color change if I did the query on another computer. But I would see the "You visited..." if I was logged in.
posted by birdherder at 5:09 PM on February 23, 2012

Another thing about your Google history that I mentioned in the thread on the blue is that sometimes I end up having to do multiple searches to find what I am looking for, with variations on a keyword. Then, months or years later, I may find myself looking for the same thing. Rather than go through the whole varying-keyword rigmarole, I can search just my own history and find the website that ended my search. I find this incredibly useful, even if I rarely use it.

On the other hand, I, too, am torn on whether or not I want to keep my history around to be tied to me. When I intentionally am looking for something I don't want tied to me, I know how to use incognito/private windows. However, I'll occasionally look up info on something I see linked somewhere to get context, only to find it is something I certainly do not want tied to me, and I am not incredibly diligent about scrubbing those searches from my history.
posted by mysterpigg at 7:55 PM on February 23, 2012

As far as ads served go, I went to while logged in and just told them what ads I was interested in.
posted by Sparx at 8:15 PM on February 23, 2012

oh man. i look at my google search history all the time.! the way in which i use it that has the broadest applicability is that i constantly remember something i've seen on the web but have no idea where to find it, or even which computer i looked at it on. enter google search history.

the MOST MOST useful use i have for it personally? i'm an attorney and i have to bill my time and i never write it down. i look through my outlook history and my google search history to remind me what i was doing every day, and remind me about stuff i worked on and researched. oohf. invaluable.
posted by anthropomorphic at 8:43 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

According to this, "Web History is accessible only by signing in to your Google Account with your username and password. As long as you don't share your username and password, your Web History should remain completely private."
posted by acridrabbit at 9:30 AM on February 24, 2012

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