Monday, 30 July 2007

Search engines update privacy policies

Following growing concerns about privacy and data collection, both Microsoft and Yahoo! announced last week that they will be keeping information on search usage for a shorter period of time. At the same time, Microsoft and Ask have proposed new voluntary standards to be developed by the search industry to protect consumer data.

The main search engines are now competing with each other to be transparent about the data they collect and how long they hold it for. Earlier this month Ask announced that they would no longer retain a web user's search history, unless they requested it to be kept as part of their search preferences. Even in this event, the data would only be kept for a maximum of 18 months and no IP address information would be recorded alongside the search terms being used.

Google has also recently announced that their 'cookies' placed on a user's computer to record search activity would expire after 2 years, rather than 2038! IP data would also be made anonymous within the cookies. Google is also coming under focus due to their acquisition of DoubleClick, which potentially gives it access to online advertising data as well as search usage.

So Microsoft and Yahoo! have also responded to this privacy trend. Microsoft will only hold search usage data for a maximum period of 18 months and there will be no connection with IP addresses or other account information, such as Hotmail - unless the user requests that the information is retained to enable personalised search. Yahoo! is also setting up similar controls on their cookies used to track search history.

Most web users probably have no idea that the search engines retained this information, although the highly publicised case in the US last year when AOL inadvertently revealed the search activities for more than 650,000 users raised concerns. The new personalised search services being offered by Google and others do require historical data to be used, so users need to be aware of the implications of this, plus the PPC targeting data used by Microsoft is based on extensive search activity data, from which users will also now be offered the chance to opt-out.

These new moves are therefore a realistic response by the search engines to take control of their own privacy policies before laws are imposed and they will need to establish a balance between data that is still being collected and how it can be used for their search services. However, this publicity and the more open approach to data collection may also slow the uptake of personalised search by web users.

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