UPDATE: Did Google kill the option for Non-logged in users to clear their web history?

A very interesting find by one of our regular readers Brandon Moreau, who before did two guestposts for us. It seems as if Google has, without telling anybody, turned off the possibility to turn off your search history personalization for those who are not logged in.

As you may know Google tracks you. Based on your web- and or search history (depending on the level of personalization you allow Google to go) Google serves you personalized results. This means that you will most probably see different results, or a different order of results, than your next door neighbor or even the colleague sitting next to you. Since late 2009 Google decided to turn this on for everybody, including those who are not logged in to any Google account (SEL reported on it here). Something every SEO has to keep in mind.

You have however always been able to turn this feature off. You can still do this when you are logged in, but when you are not logged in this possibility is now gone.

The Google help-page says the following:

Notice that you have to select “Web history“. However, when you hit the gears button you only get two options: “search settings” and “iGoogle” (remember, when logged out!). In this case you would expect that “search settings” would be the right choice. It isn’t. When you go to that page you can make a few changes like changing your language and turning on or off autocomplete. But you cannot clear any history as Google promises on their help page.

What is going on?

There could be several explanations for this. I’ve issued this with Google but haven’t gotten a response so far. We therefore have to guess for now.

One thing could be that Google has stopped looking at not-logged in users, but this is highly unlikely. Google always looks at your web history, even when you could turn it off they would look at it for 180 days, but wouldn’t personalize it. It could also be that with the recent ‘shut down’ of Google Gears something went wrong. This could just be a bug.

A more likely but also more disturbing option is that Google has deleted the option on purpose to make sure they get more data from you without you being able to stop them. That would give them more options to actually enhance the results without interference. They however then should have told the world this. And they didn’t. Why?

Questions which without a doubt will be answered soon. Or maybe you know more than we do? Let us know!


Like often Danny Sullivan seemed to have found what is going on here. I asked him about it and he found Google was just being ‘sloppy’. It looks like Google indeed stopped using this method with Gears for non-logged in users to clear their search history. However Google did not delete the option entirely. We probably ‘stumbled’ on an “old” help page here in which Google still explains the Gears-method. There is however another way.

Danny Sullivan says:

“When you search logged out, and results are personalized, there’s a “View Customizations” link that shows up at the bottom of the page. I’ve just tested this and seen it myself.

When you click on that, you get to a page that tells you results have been customized, how it was done and if web history was used – and ways to opt out of that.

That page leads to a help page here:

Which clearly explains how personalization can be turned off for logged out people. And it also leads to the turn-off page here:

I do see that another help page he’s talking about says to use the gear option:

It probably would be a good idea if Google added it to the Search Settings page that the gear option leads to.”

So Google may have just been sloppy here by not removing this help page. To say the least they haven’t made the option much clearer so it seems…

Bas van den Beld

About Bas van den Beld

Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.

15 thoughts on “UPDATE: Did Google kill the option for Non-logged in users to clear their web history?

  1. But you can still kill the cookie in the cache?? But who knows what they might still store on their servers based on your IP address?

    1. Yes, you can do that, but in that case Google just ‘restarts’, the next search you do will then be part of the search history again, that is not ‘turning it off’, it is simply deleting.

  2. I get the same thing in Google.ro, I noticed it Sunday when I had to use that ugly Chrome, I went to turn off the web history like I do on my regular browser and couldn’t find the option but thought I had simply forgotten where it was and I didn’t have to time to dig for it.
    Our local version of Google is rather primitive, changes (algorithmic or otherwise) are commonly applied many months after their release, but as I see it, when it comes to collecting data and violating people’s privacy, suddenly Google pays attention to the smaller markets as well…

  3. I can still access it without logging in, but in order to do so, I have to make sure that instant is disabled and then I have to search for a something and then hit the gears icon and I can then see an option for web history, I click that and can turn it off, all without logging in.



    1. You’re right Chris, it is quite a detour, but that works. It looks like Google just missed something here. Let’s see and wait for what Google has to say about this 🙂

      1. Yes it is indeed. They are not making it easy that’s for sure. It still works for now though, but I am sure it will soon be closed off so you have to log in. 🙂

  4. This has huge implications for SEOs. Is there a way to see clean results without any of your browsing history taken into effect? How are we supposed to know if our sites are actually ranking the way they appear if there’s no way to view SERPs as an average user?

    1. I think that’s acutally been somewhat of an illusion for quite some time. Google is getting so personal and so local, I don’t know if it’s exactly possible to see how users “in the wild” see things anymore.

      By which I mean, what average netizen do you know who routinely clears his cache and asks google not to track them?

      SEO’s, that’s who! 🙂 A funny irony. But possibly not all that major in the grand scheme of things.

      It’s not possible to be 100% au-natural anymore, but I guess it’s something which clearing your search history lets us try to approach. I really wouldn’t like it if google turned it off permanently.

  5. I checked on Google.ro, Google.fr and Google.com (not the American one, the one we get in Europe), the option doesn’t appear after trying a search either. On Google.ro we don’t even have Google Instant.
    Most mysterious.

    1. Funny you should mention that – google.com.au didn’t have instant yesterday either unless I was logged in (using my US-Based google login, so can’t be sure).

      Wonder if they’re doing some sort of upgrade.

      1. Oh, that’s interesting. We don’t have Google Instant as in “never had it”, lots of local Google versions in these parts didn’t get it, at least not when non-logged. I’m not necessarily complaining, mind you, as a user I find it rather annoying.
        I’m very curious to know what will happen to the search history.

  6. I’ve just updated the post after having contact with Danny Sullivan who figured out they have indeed deleted this method, but not the function entirely. It is ‘just’ done in another way.

    But I must say Google could have said something here, they sure didn’t make it easier on the users 😉

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