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August 13, 2007

The Search Engines Privacy Challenge

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CNET has declared Ask.com the engine most concerned about user privacy. Hmm, I don’t doubt that Ask is concerned about my privacy, but how can we declare them the "winner" when we haven’t even seen the privacy policies we’re judging them on? I mean, they haven’t even been released yet. It seems odd to me.

Backing up a bit, CNET recently sent out an eight question questionnaire to representatives of the five major engines (that would be AOL, Ask.com, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, for those just joining us) asking them what kind of information their engine collects, how long they hold on to it, whether they engage in behavioral targeting, if they allow users to opt out, and other things searchers should know before they go handing over sensitive data.

After all the results were tallied, CNET declared Ask the best engine when it came to privacy, based pretty heavily on the merits of AskEraser. AskEraser being the feature that’s not released yet and for which no release date has even be set. Yeah, that one.

Actually, last I heard, Ask wasn’t even sure how exactly they were going to make AskEraser possible. Does just having an idea about how search privacy should be make you the winner? That’s sad.

Whether or not you buy the final ruling (I don’t), the article did provide one good takeaway for users: It very simply broke down and illustrated the different engine-specific privacy policies for users to take note of.

Here’s what you should remember about each of the engines:

  • Ask.com: Once AskEraser goes live (whenever that may be), search data will be deleted in real-time. Ask does not link your data to the ads they’re displaying
  • AOL: AOL retains search data for 13 months before deleting it. No, they don’t link user info to ads, but they do toy with behavioral targeting. Users are given the opportunity to opt out.
  • Google: Google retains search data for 18 months and then only partially anonymizes a user’s IP so that it is harder to trace back to them. Google does not participate in behavioral targeting, nor does it link user info when serving ads. Good Google.
  • Microsoft: Microsoft also retains user data for 18 months, but unlike Google, after 18 months the information is deleted, not just anonymized. Microsoft does utilize behavioral targeting (it also links user info to the ads being shown) and for some reason gives users no way to opt out of behavioral targeting on the MSN.com site. Users can, however, opt out of behavioral targeting on third-party sites.
  • Yahoo!: Yahoo! admits to holding on to your data for 13 months and then partially anonymizing it after that. They do use behavioral targeting and link user info to the ads being served, and no, they don’t give you a way to opt out of it.

Any of that surprising to you?

I’ll admit, I was a little surprised by the results. I didn’t realize that Yahoo! and Microsoft didn’t provide a way for users to opt out of behavioral targeting. Why are users even tolerating that kind of behavior? The number of advertisers using adCenter is probably pretty small (in comparison to the other PPC networks, anyway), but what about Panama? Shouldn’t this brand new ad system take into account that not everyone likes having their history used to "better" their search? You would think.

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