Search Engines Defend Your Privacy (to Target You Better)

Danny Sullivan on Search Marketing

By Published on .

What's the next killer search feature? Privacy protection!

As unsexy as that sounds, the major search engines are now engaging in one-upmanship to defend privacy. Ironically, they're doing so to get closer to searchers, in order to deliver targeted ads.

Google kicked things off in March, saying it would "anonymize" log data so search data couldn't be linked to individuals, and the other search engines soon did the same. It also declared that after 18 to 24 months, records would be wiped out. But then the other shoe dropped: In April, Google launched its Web History service, which monitors all the sites someone visits if they use the Google toolbar. Millions do.
Danny Sullivan
Photo: Jason Meyer
Danny Sullivan has been covering the search-marketing industry for more than a decade and is editor in chief of

This monitoring allows Google to flavor the search results you see, to match your tastes based on what sites you visit. Web History records are completely separate from the log records, so they won't be automatically wiped over time. (Nor should they, one could argue, since Web History is an opt-in program.) But Web History records are also far more personal than the log data.

Still, privacy advocates and government agencies care more about log data. Under European Union pressure, Google lowered its retention period to 18 months. Last week Microsoft announced it would anonymize data after 18 months and Yahoo, caught flat-footed, declared it would anonymize after 13 months.

Of course, the motive here is to get more personal. Microsoft wants to deliver ads based in part on search history as you surf the web. To avoid potential backlash, it needs better consumer controls in place -- or at least some industry cover to hide behind. Yahoo also has plans to behaviorally target across the web. If 18 months gives Microsoft and Google cover, 13 months lets Yahoo be seen as 30% more private than the others.

On the surface, the search engines seem to be doing the right things with privacy. Underneath, they're getting closer to searchers than ever before. The moves may mean that the rich-search-profile records so far ignored in all these announcements will come under greater scrutiny and regulation. And that's not bad for advertisers. If searchers have trust that their searches will indeed be kept private, then they may be more willing to stay in programs that allow for more targeted ads.
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