Friday, September 10, 2010

Google Cookies - Not So Yummy for Your Tummy

In yesterday's post, we looked at the new "enhancement" to Google's search tool, Google Instant. Today, we need to look more closely at the seemingly helpful delivery of personalized search results that has been around much longer.

For those who don't know - and that's a distressingly large number of web users - Google's personalized search uses your browsing history to deliver search results that Google thinks you are more likely to find interesting. This means the results you see are no longer "neutral" rankings of all the thousands of sites competing for your attention. (Google's ranking algorithm is constantly evolving and highly secretive but is rumored to contain some 200 factors.) If your purpose in searching the web is to see what's out there - to find something new - then personalized search is not helpful at all, for it tends to present you with the same kinds of things you have searched for in the past. No, it is not the only influence on your search results, but it is a distortion of those results. And there is a larger problem here: the sneaky way Google delivers this "service" to you.

On December 4th, 2009, Google announced that personalized search would now be available to everyone. (Read the official statement here.) Going as far back as 2005 - though few people realized it - personalized search had been taking place whenever users were logged in to one of their Google accounts. If you're anything like me, you have multiple Google accounts for both personal and business purposes, such as Gmail, Blogger, Google Webmaster Tools, and on and on. But it is no longer necessary to be logged in at all. Anyone using any machine now receives personalized search results. How is this possible and why does it matter?

Hey Kids, Who Wants a Google Poop Cookie?

In theory, logged in users have always had the ability to opt-out of personalized search by deselecting web history in the upper right-hand side of the search screen. I say "in theory" because you have to watch this on all your accounts, especially if you are in and out of multiple accounts during the day, and even then many users have found this option seems to "spontaneously" re-select itself.

But now, it's more complicated - far too complicated for the average web user. Google tracks your search activity through a cookie in your browser, a cookie they tell us is "anonymous." If you want to disable search tracking, you must remove this cookie. And be prepared to do so over and over again, because it's going to keep coming back - whether you want it to or not. So, to recap, to disable personalized search you must first be aware that it is actually happening (most people aren't); you must know how to delete Google's cookies (most people don't); and you must be willing to take the time to do this pretty much every time you fire up each computer you use during the day.

But it gets better. Deleting the cookie, you see, is a little trickier than you might think. (See Google's official explanation here.) Google tells you to disable customization under the Web History option. The interesting thing is that if you then delete your browser's cookies (which all you porn surfers do every day before leaving your work station, right?) then you need to disable customization again because clearing your Google cookie turns on history-based customizations. Sweet!

So, what the hell happened to the axiomatic privacy concept of the opt-in?

What indeed! Why is it so bloody difficult to turn this thing off, and why do we have to do anything at all? What Google should have done - and what they once promised they would do - is to allow users to opt-in
to personalized search. This option should be prominently displayed on their home page - a page which offers plenty of real estate for a nice, big warning button. If you actually want your search engine to take notes on every place you go online because you believe that "optimized" search results are good for you, fine, you could have that option - if you wanted it. But the respectful, default setting of the search engine should be to leave the notebook closed.

Imagine going to a library to take out a couple of books to read. (You may not be old enough to remember such a quaint activity.) Now imagine that the librarian follows you everywhere you go in the public library. She watches as you browse through the selection, and reads over your shoulder as you leaf through the pages of something that interests you. You don't mind this at all, do you? It's perfectly normal. She can advise you on which choice would best develop your command of literature. You are reassured by the knowledge that, should you come back in 180 days, she will remember everything you looked at and can remind you what you liked and what you didn't. She didn't tell anybody what you like, even though it was a heady mix of racy novels and politically incorrect diatribes. You can trust her completely; she is there but to serve.

Preposterous isn't it? But your relationship with Google is far, far more disturbing in its implications. This librarian has been peeking over your shoulder for years and you probably never realized it. She remembers everything you've ever looked for online. And she never asked you for permission to do this! So you know what you need to do? You tell her to fuck off back to her little cubicle where she belongs. If you need her, you'll call her; otherwise, she is to mind her own bloody business and remember her place. This is a public library, not her library. And if she can't get that message into her officious little head, then she's going to get fired because there are other qualified librarians in the market who will do what they're supposed to and only that. They will tell you where the books are when you walk in the door, then leave you to it unless you specifically ask them for more help.


  1. As an ex library assistant this is just beautiful. I used to have a mug that said "do I look like a @#$%ing information desk?" How innocent that seems now...

  2. Jo:

    You raise a crucial point. Lazy people will eat up all this hand-holding from Google. The combination of personalized search and Google Instant reduces the twin burden of having to remember what you were looking for and where to find it. You barely need to think for yourself at all, as Google will kindly assume these burdens for you.

    This mental laziness, quite apart from all the privacy implications here, is perhaps the most insidious and profoundly disturbing result of Google's recent changes. A populace that loses the ability - or even the will - to think independently, to figure things out for itself is ripe for exploitation, manipulation, and subjugation.

    It was once part of Google's mantra to do no evil. Turning us all into vegetables dependent on Google poop for mental nourishment is one of the most evil things they could possibly do.

    Jo, I remember all the hours I used to spend working on research papers in my university library - lonely hours in the stacks, discovering what was there, pulling out musty old copies of the Annals of Congress. Nobody else knew what I was doing, or even where I was. It was just me, the books, and the search for truth. Pure, good, and - as you rightly say - oh so innocent.

    We have made a Faustian bargain with Google. In exchange for a ridiculously low price to obtain information, they first take our privacy and then - so slowly and quietly that we don't even notice - they erode our ability to think for ourselves. Not looking so cheap now, is it?