Nothing 'to worry about' customized search

Analyst notes Google's move to extend personalized search to non-logged in users was about growing ad revenues and market share, not intrude on user privacy.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Google's recent move to extend personalized search to all users is not cause for concern on user privacy, the search giant has maintained. Now, an analyst has backed up the claim, noting that the move is really a "money-making" endeavor.

Personalized search was previously offered only to Google account holders who are logged in and have Web History enabled, according to a blog post made by Google employees Bryan Horling, software engineer and Matthew Kulick, product manager. On Dec. 4, the pair explained Google's plan to provide the option to users without requiring them to be signed in.

"This addition enables us to customize search results for [users] based upon 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in [their] browser," Horling and Kulick wrote in the post.

The service is currently on an opt-out rather than opt-in basis, which a Google spokesperson said was aimed at reducing "the barrier to receiving customized search results".

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, the spokesperson explained: "From our personal experiences, we often forget to sign in before searching and we wanted to help improve search for these users."

However, he denied that the move would cross the user privacy line, adding that Google "offers control" for both signed-in and signed-out users to opt out of the service if they wish to.

Chris Perrine, COO and executive vice president of Springboard Research, also told ZDNet Asia that the move was not about invading privacy, but instead generate more ad revenue for the company. "In this specific instance I don't feel there is anything to worry about, but one can sense a growing trend that consumers, businesses, and governments are starting to be more wary [of] Google," he noted in an e-mail.

Perrine added that in terms of "making money", the extension of the feature helps better equip Google to target more relevant ads for the different user groups.

Privacy advocates, on the other hand, are unhappy with Google's move. According to an article by The New York Times, using the Google search engine without logging in was a means of minimizing exposure to Google's data collection practices.

However, this was now no longer possible, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said in the report. "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," he noted.

Rival search engine and browser operators ZDNet Asia spoke to claimed that users' choice and need for privacy come first for them.

Peter Joblin, Yahoo Southeast Asia's senior communications manager, said in an e-mail that the company believes that each user should decide individually how much information they want to share.

"We have not adopted a personalized search approach for non-logged-in Yahoo users," he said. "At Yahoo we believe in choice, and our search policies enable choice."

Joblin added that the company does not use personalized rankings for search results under its algorithm Web search engine. Yahoo's search engine function. Instead, Yahoo recommends sites based on users' interests and sites that they have saved previously via its "social bookmarking service", delicious.

Microsoft, which launched its Bing search engine in May this year, said in an e-mail it remains "focused on developing innovative and personalized services for search while also protecting people's privacy".

A Microsoft spokesperson noted the company's search history function provides clear controls to manage history and lets the user know what information is collected and how it will be used. Furthermore, the company has a policy to "anonymize" search data after 18 months by permanently removing the entirety of the IP (Internet Protocol) address and other "cross session identifiers", including cookies, he said in an e-mail.

"We believe that partial approaches such as removing only IP addresses, or portions of an IP address, are less effective in protecting user privacy," added the spokesperson.

Striking a similar tone is Opera Software, creator of the Opera Web browser. Jan Standal, Opera's vice president of desktop products, said in an e-mail that any potential benefits of search results based on a user's browsing history "needs to be balanced with people's rights and needs for privacy and security" when browsing the Web. He added that protecting the privacy of its users is "one of the company's core values".

According to Standal, during a search process, the Opera Web browser would relay the user's search requests directly to third-party Web sites. "What is sent to the third-party site is only the information needed to perform the particular search query; no personal information is sent," he noted.

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