What information does Google store about you? You might be surprised

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Many millions of people have Google accounts. I have several myself. And whenever I want to look something up on the internet, I use Google because it seems to come up with the most accurate search results, which means I don’t have to waste a lot of time weeding out stuff that is not relevant to what I was looking for. But did you know that Google stores your history of searches – for quite some time?

Google search history

 

There are two points I want to make you aware of today:

  1. Google stores your search history for kind of a long time
  2. You can control the amount of information that is being stored

To show how this works, I’ll use my own Google account. The first step is to open your web browser and go to:

http://google.com/settings/accounthistory

That will bring you to a page that shows the 6 different things that Google can keep track of for this account. Those are:

  1. Your searches
  2. Places you go (like if you used Google Maps for GPS)
  3. Your voice searches and commands (usually this is the “OK Google” function, which you might not even use or be aware of)
  4. Information about your devices (contacts, calendars and apps on your laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.)
  5. Videos you search for on YouTube
  6. Videos you watch on YouTube

That’s quite a bit of web activity that is possibly being tracked. Those 6 areas are displayed in sections on the page, like this:

Google history

 

As far as the way the “history storage” works, each of these categories works pretty much the same way so I’ll just explore the first one, “Searches and browsing history”. First step is to click on “Manage History”.

Google history

 

When you do that, you’ll see a list of your most recent Google searches (assuming you did those searches while you were signed in to your Google/Gmail account). And it’s a very detailed and accurate list. In fact, it shows the search term you used, and then under that is the actual site(s) you clicked on in the search results. For example, someone this afternoon was asking me about a site called Ixquick, so I did a quick Google search on it, then clicked on the Ixquick site. These two actions were recorded and stored in my Google account history, like this:

Google history

 

Above the list of searches, there are a couple of graphs. These show your search activity by the hour, and by the day. As you can see, I do more Google searches on weekdays rather than weekends, and I don’t do many searches between midnight and 4 am:

Google history

 

Now let’s get to the more interesting part. To the right of those graphs is an Activity calendar.

Google history

 

You can click on any day on that calendar, and it the page will show you your complete list of Google searches and clicks for that day. As you can see, it’s also color coded. Light blue means fewer searches, darker blue means more searches:

Google history

 

Obviously I use Google quite a bit. So I started clicking to go back to previous months, to see how far back this history goes. I was surprised to see that it goes back to May of 2013.

Almost 2 years  of my Google search history – 8,044 searches to be exact.

Why does Google need to have that much detail about what I search on? Because most of their billions of dollars of revenue each year comes from advertising. And the more they know about what I’m interested in (based on what I search for), the more targeted they can make the ads, which means they can charge advertisers higher prices.

One thing you’ll see to the left of each listed search in your history is a little checkbox. If you want, you can check the searches you don’t want stored in your history, and click on “Remove items” at the top of the list. You could remove all of them if you wanted to.

In fact, if you go back to the initial screen where you clicked on “Manage history” you see another button there: Pause. This means you can actually turn off the storage of your Google searches if you want to. But if you click that, Google will really try to persuade you to leave it on. This is the explanation they give before having you confirm your decision to pause:

google history

 

You can pick and choose which areas you want to have paused or enabled, or you can just pause all of them if you prefer.

So there you have it. The purpose of this is not to rekindle the continuous debate about how much privacy we do or don’t have. I just wanted to make sure that you are aware of what is happening, so that you can make an intelligent decision about how you want to handle it. More information is always a good thing.

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