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how does google know?

A long while back I posted (on th old blog, dose) about how, by default, when you are logged into a google account (say gmail), google tracks your searches (ostensibly to serve you “better” search results) … and allows you to review your “search history.” You can un-default that, but it’s pretty creepy whatever way you look at it.

So I undefaulted that option… but I noticed a funny thing the other day. I set up my rugby club’s website recently, and wanted to check google rankings. Here’s how we’re doing, I thought, on my browser for search terms “Montreal Rugby”:

Sweet. #1 on the web, not bad. As I set up the site, and I’ve been updating it pretty often, I’ve been visiting the site frequently. I told a friend to check out google, and see how well we were doing. We were #10 on “his” google. So I checked on safari, a browser I rarely use, and guess what? #2, not #1:

So, clearly google is:
a) tracking what I do with my browser
b) deciding what search results I will “prefer”

Both of which really pisses me off. So, google, if you are listening (which you certainly are), stop following me around. You are really starting to creep me out.


  1. heri heri 2007-05-21

    patrick posted something also today about google rankings.

    I have read an article a while back ago that google searches are distributed through google datacenters, and results vary, depending on which datacenter you hit. Ultimately though, search results become the same as their database sync up with each other.

    so that might be another explanation for this.

  2. Alexandre Alexandre 2007-05-22

    I, for one, welcome our new Google overlords.

  3. Hugh Hugh 2007-05-22

    @heri: but these different results (pictured above) are from my machine, from 2 different browsers, 1 second apart. does the data centre thing account for that?

    @alexandre: la resistance!

  4. Patrick Patrick 2007-05-22

    I don’t welcome the overlords.

    As you just commented on my similar post, results vary for mine too. However, I don’t think I’m getting results related to “what I want” because, knowing what the links are already I don’t click them anyway so Google doesn’t “know” which are appropriate. In this case the varying servers might be a better explanation. Although it is weird that I’m getting the best results…

  5. julien julien 2007-05-22

    also, google has several datacenters, which give slightly different results.

    as for personal searches, i turned mine off a while ago… i don’t wanna go back. :)

  6. Boris Boris 2007-05-22

    feed the machine! feed the machine!

    On a totally geek tip, the processing power G has is truly mind numbing. My god, it’s full of CPUs.

    Can it be perhaps that man’s sole purpose for existing is to wire up the planet, with interconnected sensors, building Earth’s nervous system as it evolves over millennia? Are we not just part of the DNA code of this organism so much larger than us? Can it be that Googl ethen is just a first simple and dumb relay mechanism for all the data that is starting to come “online”. And, will we finish the job before we finish oursleves?

    Carry on.

  7. Hugh Hugh 2007-05-22

    patrick says: “However, I don’t think I’m getting results related to “what I want” because, knowing what the links are already I don’t click them anyway so Google doesn’t “know” which are appropriate.”
    HM: unless google is actually tracking where you spend your browser time, eg lots at … since, gee, it is odd that “patrick” gets you a good ranking on your search, and “montreal rugby” gives me westmount as #1.

    @julien: personal search is off, but i am still getting “personalized” results. why? the data centre argument seems like I should get more random results but I don’t …

  8. karl karl 2007-05-22

    I wonder if the personal tracking opt-out is an option only for people who are logged in. Which would be quite quite ironical.

  9. karl karl 2007-05-22

    notice also that you do not hit the same server in both cases. I think if you really want to test. Google redirects your request on IP location. For example on the first screenshot, it knows you are in Canada and that you might research pages in Canada. It’s why you get the options.
    On the second screenshot there is no such things.
    I guess on the first one you have set the preferences near the search button. It modifies the results too.

  10. Hugh Hugh 2007-05-22

    boris, yes, i think that’s likely.

  11. Patrick Patrick 2007-05-22

    I’ve also had personal search turned off for a while.

    hugh: how would Google be following my browser activity for stuff I don’t get to through their searches?? I don’t have any toolbars installed.

  12. Hugh Hugh 2007-05-23

    patrick: this is exactly what i’m trying to figure out: given that:
    a) i am not logged into any google aps
    b) i have my accounts set to “don’t snoop on my searches”, and
    c) i have no toolbars installed …

    how is it that google still “knows” what results i’m more likely to “want” to see first? karl suggests that it has to do with IP location sniffing, and maybe preferences (tho i have not set any location preference). Could there be cookies – from when I *am* logged into google, that give google info about me? or something?

    it still doesn’t make sense to me, unless google *is* somehow tracking browser activity, but maybe that’s paranoia (which doesn’t meant they aren’t out to get me).

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