Getting off of Google Search

A lot has been made lately about decreasing dependency on the various services that Google offers. The podcast Mac Power Users even devoted an episode to the options available to someone who wanted to get rid of Google as much as possible. I recently dumped Google search and after listening to the MPU podcast I didn’t think they dove quite deeply enough into the subject (understandable. They had a lot of ground to cover.).

I do think it’s important to discuss one thing quickly that they also touched on during the MPU episode: dump what you feel comfortable with. I’ve read several articles in which people have chronicled their adventures in getting rid of all Google services but for some of us that might not be desirable or even possible. There is absolutely no reason to dump Google en masse. What is important is knowing the implications of using Google’s services and acting appropriately. In my case I’ve had a Google account (Gmail to be exact) since 2004 with a lot of professional contacts in both Gmail and Google Talk. While I don’t use my Gmail account anymore I do have it forward to another email account and my Google Talk account is still necessary because I use it to chat with a lot of contacts at work and it’s the only IM service I can use at work. To get rid of it at this point just wouldn’t be realistic (though there are ways around Google Talk as well if it isn’t the only service you can use via work. More on that in another post).

Options to tame privacy issues while using Google search

There are a couple of areas to think about as far as Google search goes:

  • Google ads – which can further be broken down into:
    • Ads while searching.
    • Ads while browsing other websites.
  • Google search personalization.
    • Also includes personal results based on Google+ circles, etc.

Google serves up advertising based on what you’re searching on as well as your search history. They track this information whether you are signed in to a Google account or not. If you’re not signed in a tracking cookie is placed in your web browser.

Google also tailors the search results returned to you based on your history, links you’ve clicked, etc. to try to make the search results more relevant to you (also known as search bubbling). Again they do this whether you are signed in or not but turning off this feature has different steps for each case.

Turn off search personalization while signed in

If you are searching while signed in to Google there are several things to turn off. The first is shutting off the web history feature which records your searches and lets you browse your search history. Actually though you can’t really shut it off, Google lets you “pause” it. This effectively stops the feature from recording searches from that point forward. It is also a good idea to delete all of the search history that is stored. Going to https://www.google.com/history while signed in allows you to pause your web history as well as remove what is already stored.

Google also offers the ability to turn off personal results, which includes personalization based on what is in your Google+ circles (assuming you have them). This can be either based on the current browsing session (if you exit and restart your web browser it will be turned back on) or at an account level (stays off between browsing sessions). Full details and instructions are here.

Turn off search personalization while signed out

Turning off search personalization while signed out is pretty straightfoward: opt out of further personalization. This turns off the cookie Google uses to track you. The links for these options are here. Make sure you sign out of your account before visiting that page.

Turn off advertising personalization

There is one place to opt out of ad personalization and that can be found here. Make sure to sign in first so that you can opt out of ad personalization while signed in (the link is “Ads on Search and Gmail” on the left side of the page). You can also opt out of ad personalization on other websites on which Google provides ads by clicking on the “Ads on the web” link on the left side of the page.

Google also provides a browser plugin for Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer to opt out of the DoubleClick cookie.

If you wish to opt out of other ad-serving sites visit the opt-out page provided by the Network Advertising Initiative (of which Google is a member).

More options

Browser plugins

There are several companies that make browser plugins to help keep your web browsing habits to yourself. My plugin of choice is Ghostery. My browser of choice is Firefox and the Ghostery add-on works well. I also use Safari on occassion and Ghostery is available there as well. When I used Google Chrome I had Ghostery installed there too.

Other search engines

There is life after Google as far as search goes. I don’t use Microsoft Bing because they do the same sorts of tracking that Google does and they have their own ad network. My search engine of choice is duckduckgo. I’ll let them explain their stance on privacy. They also offer options to help make searching with them easier (such as making them the default search engine in Firefox).

Final thoughts

There are certainly a lot of things to think about and settings to visit if you want to tame how Google is tracking you. Even with all of these options I don’t think it is totally possible to have anonymity on the web. There are just too many sites trying to track us and our browsing habits. It is possible to retain a lot more control over what information you are giving up as you browse the web. Google’s options for opting out are the first step. A browser add-on like Ghostery is another step. Using a different search engine like duckduckgo is yet another step. The most important step? Having awareness of these issues and taking the appropriate actions to help protect yourself.

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