Major search engines
While Google's lawyers were able to reduce the amount of information that will be turned over, it seems that the Justice Department will ultimately win round one, and will soon add Google's information to similar findings from Yahoo, MSN and Ask.com.
As search technology has grown increasingly sophisticated, so has the breadth and depth of information that the search engines amass.
Initially, search engines were capturing information on an individual query basis, using log files to capture not only the keyword and resulting clicks, but the time of day, basic geographic location, and even the computer and browser used to conduct the search.
All user queries connected
The rise of personalization technology, and registration-based services such as GMail and MyYahoo allowed engines to place cookies on users' browsers to track their movement online. Individuals who sign up for the various personalized services (everything from Web-based e-mail to customized weather reports and news) are providing the thread that potentially connects all of their queries together, forming a clearer picture of trends and patterns in their behavior.
The final piece of the puzzle? Demographic detail, which lends insight into the actual person sitting behind the computer screen. MSN appears to be leading the charge: they have begun to cross-reference data from their Passport user profiles with search query data, providing insight into a searcher's age, gender, income and education level. These robust data are essential to understanding and better serving the needs of their constituents.
From the user standpoint, their information-seeking process is improved as they see search results and advertising more highly attuned to their individual preferences and behavior. This comes in the form of "custom-tailored" search results that make the search experience richer and more efficient. Marketing messages appear seamless rather than annoying and intrusive. Engines can be more predictive about the types of information that specific users will find useful.
Expanding data collection
Marketers also reap the benefits that come with knowing more about their audiences -- whether it's learning what offers and promotions are most likely to elicit a user response or knowing what times of day, sites and publications best appeal to their target consumers.
However, there's an important caveat: As data get richer, so does the potential for infringement upon user privacy.
One way around this is for search engines to resist the temptation to look at data on an individual level and rather keep their focus confined to the aggregate. The benefits of doing so are twofold: The potential for litigation, both on a private and government level, is reduced; and the credibility of marketers' messages and user trust are retained. Luckily for search engines, both of these also happen to be good for the bottom line.
That said, if the government is successful in this and similar litigation, the final decision may not be up to the search engines. While the Justice Department's current request is simply for search terms and URLs, precedent has been set for the government to get more aggressive about the type and scope of information they're requesting.
Striking a balance
Striking a balance between what's good for the search engines and what's good for the user is key. Rather than looking at these issues as a ticking time bomb, we prefer to recognize that with great power comes great responsibility. While we stand to benefit from this information as consumers and advertisers, we need to keep a watchful eye on how this information is used by the engines.