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: http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?&answer=93704 Which clearly explains how personalization can be turned off for logged out people. And it also leads to the turn-off page here: http://www.google.com/history/optout I do see that another help page he’s talking about says to use the gear option: http://www.google.com/support/accounts/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=54048 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…