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Google Personalizes Search Results even when Logged Out / Incognito

(The AEGIS Alliance) – It is expected that when you perform a search on Google while logged in to your Google account that results will be personalized according to what Google has learned about you over time. But how about when you aren’t signed in?

DuckDuckGo a privacy focused search engine carried out a study and revealed some surprising results. While running tests earlier this year, it was discovered that even when people search Google while not being logged into their Google account, or when using private browsing modes, “most participants saw results unique to them”, which suggests there were still personalized results.

Although it was a small study with just 87 results involved, there were interesting findings. The study was conducted back in June during the US midterms. DuckDuckGo wanted to to the study to test influences of Google’s “filter bubble”. The “bubble” involves activity one would expect to see from Google. The “bubble” is the personalization search results that is based on what has been learned about you. While logged into your Google account, it is easily understood how the company is gathering information about you. However, when you are using incognito or private browsing mode, or are just logged out, and you still see similar personalizations, it can be a bit worrying.

Participants in the study were asked by DuckDuckGo to perform identical searches at the same time. The study found:

  1. Most participators found results unique to them. There was no explanation for these discrepancies by changing location, time, or while logged into Google, or by changes in the Google testing algorithm to a minor subset of users.
  2. On page one search results, Google had included links for some of the participants that weren’t included for others, even while logged out and using incognito modes.
  3. News and Video info-boxes results also had significant variations. Although people were searching at the same time, people were given different sources, even when accounting for their location.
  4. When logged out of Google or in private browsing mode there was very little protection from the filter bubble. Using these tactics, simply put, do not provide anonymity that most people are expecting. In fact, it is not possible to use Google’s search engine and avoid the filter bubble.

Searches in the study related to topics such as “gun control”, “vaccinations”, “immigration” and the results reveal that even when avoiding a Google account, or attempting to protect your own privacy while using private browsing modes, have little to no effect on whether search results were or were not personalized.

DuckDuckGo said in a statement that:

“We saw that when randomly comparing people’s private modes to each other, there was more than double the variation than when comparing someone’s private mode to their normal mode.”

It went on to give a dire warning:

“We often hear of confusion that private browsing mode enables anonymity on the web, but this finding demonstrates that Google tailors search results regardless of browsing mode. People should not be lulled into a false sense of security that so-called “incognito” mode makes them anonymous.”

The full results and methods of the filter bubble study are available to read on the DuckDuckGo website.

Featured Image Credit: CC/Flickr/C.E. Kent

Kyle James Lee – The AEGIS Alliance – This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Kyle James Lee

Majority Owner of The AEGIS Alliance. I studied in college for Media Arts, Game Development. Talents include Writer/Article Writer, Graphic Design, Photoshop, Web Design and Development, Video Production, Social Media, and eCommerce.

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