On The Net
Tracking Your Search History
By Greg R. Notess | Reference Librarian, Montana State University
Over the past year or so, search engines have begun exploring personalized searching. For the search companies, personalization offers the opportunity to build user loyalty by more effectively targeting advertising and search results. The personalization features include such options as saving URLs, archiving pages, organizing saved results into folders, blocking specific sites, and recording a search history. Of all of these, I have found the search history most intriguing. Commercial databases and traditional online systems have offered a search history feature for decades. Web search engines are finally catching up. The options vary greatly among them, but all raise a number of privacy issues.
A9, the Amazon-owned search engine, introduced search histories in April 2004: These histories are now also available at Ask Jeeves, Google, Yahoo!, and several lesser-known search engines. Of the big four search engines, that means everyone has a search history except MSN Search. A searcher usually needs to establish a free account and log in before the search tracking begins.
Whether or not you have intentionally enabled search history recording, if you use other services from any of these companies, it might be turned on by default. On the other hand, you may find that you thought the search history was enabled, only to find out later that it stopped recording for some reason.
All the current implementations seem a bit undependable, particularly when compared to search history functions from commercial systems. Still, for those wanting to track their searches or analyze their own search patterns, these are
Ask Jeeves History
Search history at Ask Jeeves is a part of its MyJeeves service, and it is still in beta. When logged into MyJeeves, every search done at Ask gets recorded in the search history—and some of the searches are recorded multiple times. The Jeeves history lists the query statement, the type of search, and the date searched. The search statement itself, which includes the exact text of the search, links to current search results for the same search—at Ask Jeeves, of course.
The type of search column identifies which Ask database was searched. While Ask Jeeves has a Web, Pictures, News, Local, and Products databases, the search history only works with the Web and Pictures databases at this point.
MyJeeves has no option to pause or turn off the search history gathering, although logging out will achieve the same effect. At any point, the entire search history can be cleared or individual items can be deleted from the search history by using the "clear search history" button or selecting items and then using the "delete" button.
While the address and a thumbnail screen shot for individual results can be saved and tagged or placed within folders, MyJeeves does not automatically track which search results are clicked. Instead, a searcher needs to click on the "Save" link that is displayed at the end of the results listing.
Google Search History
Originally a separate Google Labs project, the My Search History has now been incorporated into Google’s Personalized Search. Log in with a Gmail or other Google account. As with Ask Jeeves, once a user is logged in, all Google searches are tracked. Google does offer a "pause" function that can stop the recording of search results without logging out.
At this point, only three of Google’s many databases are tracked: Web, Image, and News searches. Google records the search statements as well as the search results that are clicked. Accessible from the "search history" link in the top right corner, the history page displays the search text along with the title, URL, date, and time of any clicked results. For images, a thumbnail is shown. The history is arranged by date with no direct identification from which of the three databases it came. Click the Web, Images, or News links on the left to see results from individual databases.
The star outline is used to bookmark specific results. After being bookmarked, an "edit bookmark" link permits adding tags (which Google calls labels) and notes. A highlighted calendar on the right shows search activity by date. Bookmarks and entries can be deleted easily by using the "Remove items" option, which includes a choice to "Clear entire Search History."
Even though Google Personalized Search has graduated from Google Labs and is no longer in beta, there are still several rough edges and continuing experiments. For example, once logged in, every Web search result includes a "Remove result" link. This removes the entry from the results list, replacing it with a yellow bar. While it is easy to undo the initial removal, Google gives more options, such as the ability to remove the site from all future searches. Unfortunately, once removed, there is no list of removed sites or pages. If you do a search that may have some records removed, be sure to check at the bottom of the results page for an option to include the missing results.
Another major annoyance, for me at least, is that Google keeps prompting for my password. After about 10 minutes of inactivity, I’m prompted yet again for my password the next time I try to see my history. If this were on a public computer or were a user-controlled preference, this could be a useful security feature. On a single-user computer, it is just an annoyance.
Yahoo! My Web
Yahoo!’s search history is part of Yahoo! My Web and is still in beta. Yahoo! also prompts frequently for your password, but it is a customizable setting ranging from every 15 minutes to once a day. Access to the configuration may take entering the password several times and doing a bit of hunting (or going direct to http://edit.yahoo.com/config/set_profile), but once it has been set, it should only prompt for the password at the chosen interval.
Yahoo! takes a rather different approach to a search history. It does not record all searches. Instead, the Yahoo! search history is focused on clicked results. When history is turned on, it records any search results clicked along with the search statement used to find the result. Unfortunately, the search statements are not linked for re-running an old search.
The My Web personalization approach is built more around the ability to save specific results than saving the searching history. While both news stories and Web search results can be saved to My Web, the search history is saved only for Web search results and not in any of their other databases such as its Directory, Image, or Video search.
Beyond what Ask Jeeves and Google offer, Yahoo! My Web provides an option to "Store a copy of this page" so that if the page disappears from the Web, it would still be available from within My Web. Thus, not only is a link to the page saved as in Google’s search history, but if the "Store a copy" option is chosen, all the HTML and text of a page is saved to My Web. All pages saved or recorded can also be deleted from My Web.
Yahoo! came up with the idea of letting users remove certain Web sites from search results, using the "block" option. This removes any results from that domain in subsequent searches. On the My Search History page, just click the "blocked" link to see which sites have been blocked and to unblock them. Also, on search results pages that would have contained a blocked result, there is a note at the bottom noting how many results have been blocked and offering an option to display them.
Like Google, the Yahoo! implementation is also somewhat buggy. While I did not have to keep entering my password every few minutes once I changed the default, I did find that the search history would mysteriously turn off at times I did not expect. I would also like to see it include all searches run, even those that had no results clicked.
As the first company to really offer a search history ability for Web searching, A9 continues to have some unique features. For searchers who routinely use more than one search engine, the Ask Jeeves, Google, and Yahoo! history functions are limited in that they only record searches from that search engine. Install the A9 toolbar in Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, and, when the History button is on, you’ll find it records A9 searches as well as searches run at Google, Yahoo!, MSN Search, and Amazon (but not at other search engines such as Ask Jeeves, Exalead, or Gigablast).
However, the history from nonsupported search engines can still be found at A9 under "Your History" using the "sites recently visited" section. Since this includes results from a search at an unsupported search site, it is easy to get back to those results. A9 organizes the search history and pages visited by date, but it does not note the search engine used. All searches and pages visited can be deleted from the history.
A9’s approach provides the most detailed search and visitation history of any of the products. The down side is that the A9 toolbar must not only be installed but also be visible as well (in other words, if it is installed but via the View/Toolbars menu it is not selected to be viewable on the desktop, it does not record). Searchers who use A9 regularly can have it record searches done at A9 and A9 results visited without installing the toolbar.
Interestingly, if you first log in to A9 with your Amazon username and password, you still need to log in to Amazon separately. However, if you have signed in to Amazon, then A9 automatically recognizes this, and no additional login at A9 is necessary. Unlike Yahoo! and Google, A9 lets you log in and remain logged in on that browser until you specifically sign out.
Most commercial search systems either save a search history only for a single session or provide an option for registered users to save searches. Web searching patterns differ. In addition, Web search engines are also advertising companies. Before using any of these search history functions, consider the privacy implications.
All four search history options we have explored are server-based, requiring users to log in to their accounts to track their searches. The upside is that searchers can have access to their history from any Internet-connected computer just by signing in to their account. However, this means that the data itself is housed on the companies’ computers. Given that all these companies rely on advertising (and selling in Amazon’s case with A9) for their income, the advantage to them for offering search history tracking is the ability to gather data on a user’s search and viewing habits. Ads and products can then be targeted more effectively.
Google even states that its Personalized Search is designed to algorithmically "learn" user preferences over time and that the ranking of regular search results may change based on past searches for Personalized Search users. While I saw only very minimal changed ranking in my month of using Google Personalized Search, the potential is certainly there.
Do not use these features if you’re working in a highly secure environment where data needs to remain within the organization. People sharing computers in an office or at a reference desk should think twice before logging in both for keeping their history private and to avoid inadvertently recording someone else’s history. Those uncomfortable sharing that much data with an advertising company should also shun these search trackers.
Several of these search history programs have been available for a while. I experimented very briefly with each one when they were first launched and then turned them off. It was not until I started working on this column that I decided to try them again, enabling them on my home computer, but not on my work or reference desk computers.
After spending a fair amount of time in the last month with the search histories from Ask Jeeves, Google, Yahoo!, and A9, which will I continue to use? If I mostly used just one search engine, I might consider using its history feature, but I frequently use several engines. Plus, I find Google’s constant password prompting very annoying, and I miss having all the searches saved at Yahoo!. Despite the annoyance of having to keep the A9 toolbar visible, I like that it records my searches from multiple search engines and tracks nonsearch-related pages I visit as well. For now, I plan to keep A9 recording. I will check how much I use it to see if it becomes an important aspect of my search behavior. Try one out yourself to see if it is worth incorporating into your own search toolkit.
Greg R. Notess [email@example.com; http://www.notess.com/] is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com.
Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org.