I was asked recently if Google’s dominance in search would ever change, at least anytime soon, to which I responded that I did not believe so unless they make a major mistake. And what is the most crucial area that Google needs to pay close attention to? How they handle privacy.
Google did make a recent move to reduce the amount of time they would hold on to retained data to 18 months as opposed to the prior timeline – about 30 years. This occurred about a week after Ask launched AskEraser, a product that allows searchers to erase their search history. With AskEraser, users can ensure that their search history will not be retained by Ask.com. They can change their privacy preference at any time. Once selected, searchers’ privacy settings will be clearly indicated on search results pages so they always know the privacy status of their searches.
Now Microsoft is getting involved as well. The New York Times reports that Microsoft will not only follow suit with Google in their policy to wipe clean search logs after 18 months, but they are also calling for a set of industry-wide privacy standards. They also stated that they will allow users opt-out of receiving behaviorally-targeted ads across Microsoft’s advertising network, which it expanded in April by buying DoubleClick-rival aQuantive Inc.
Microsoft additionally vows to store search records separately from personally identifiable account information such as names, email addresses and phone numbers. If customers want to combine these two data-sets (presumably to get super-personalized online ads and discounts), they have to explicitly give their permission.
Where does Yahoo! stand in all of this? They have actually modified policy to retain search data for only 13 months. “We have decided on 13 month policy because we believe it is consistent with our commitment to our users’ privacy and consistent with local data protection laws across the world,” said Yahoo spokesman Jim Cullinan in a written statement.
As we conduct more and more activity through search engines as well as the variety of additional services they offer (i.e. GMail, Flickr, Maps, etc.), I believe how each search provider handles privacy will become more important to users. These steps that the four major search engines have recently taken are welcomed approaches to dealing with the ever growing concern Internet users have over how their privacy is or is not being protected.