Me and My Google

Google took another step forward in personalization with its new My Search History service, now in beta. Is this the future of search?

Not yet. And maybe never.

The last time Google received such a media backlash was when it launched Gmail just over one year ago. At the time, the concerns were over targeting contextual ads to message content, which may be a little creepy, but the ads are so easy to ignore that the scare subsided. It's also not the first company to sell targeted e-mail ads. Gmail's ads do provide some comic relief. A friend received an e-mail from a woman he was dating, and Gmail displayed ads for: a breakup survival guide, a way to restore broken relationships, and a "cuddle buddy arm pillow." Soon after, the relationship ended, so perhaps Gmail has enlisted Miss Cleo. Let's start a Senate investigation into psychic advertising.

"My Saved Searches" enables Google to remember search results, if users log in with the same registration they've set up for Gmail, groups, or news alerts. Google allows users to see which searches they've conducted by day, and then which links they've clicked from any search.



'Party Like It's 1984' Ad Sales Imagine what Google could pitch to advertisers based on this. Consider Google calling up General Motors, saying, "In the past month, we've had 50,000 My Search History users each conducting at least five searches or more for 'luxury sedan' and related terms. Care to sponsor the future related searches by these users?" The implication is that these searchers have not yet made a purchase decision, and the advertiser could then super-target the searchers at a hefty premium. Far-fetched, or the future? Google says it has no such plans, and I buy it. Yet could it be done? Why not?

My Search History won't likely be a direct moneymaker. It's yet another add-on along the likes of Google Desktop to encourage brand loyalty. There are other implications though - let's look at a few.

The Brand-Buster Google rose to prominence because it delivered on two promises: relevant results and a stupid-simple interface. With all the features Google developed, only six achieve prominence atop its search box. When a user visits Google, he or she has a mission in mind, and the user wants to complete that mission as efficiently as possible. Signing in doesn't fit with that. It even goes against Google's brand.

Google's company overview states, "Google is now widely recognized as the world's largest search engine -- an easy-to-use free service that usually returns relevant results in a fraction of a second." Signing in slows down the process.

Fear (and Loathing?) The Drudge Report linked to the My Search History news with the headline "GOOGLE KNOWS WHAT YOU SEARCHED LAST NIGHT." I sent a related article to several friends to get their take. The first response came from Andrew "Cuse" Marcus, a University of California, Berkeley graduate student who's consistently one of the first people I know to try out new features and sites. He wrote, "I'm always a little wary of anything that tracks my history... I get enough spam as it is, and granted, this isn't directly linked to mailings yet, but it could be in the future."

This may or may not be representative of public sentiment, but it's a startling response. Saved search history leads to spam? I have trouble making the connection since I know, working in the business, it's the furthest thing from Google's plans. None of the major search engines would pull something so nefarious. But perception is all that matters.

Personalization Done Right Amazon's A9 search engine developed my favorite personalization tool. It saves my search history automatically, and I'm kept signed in. I can log out if I like, and I can edit the searches that appear in my history. The best part is that the previous searches appear on the A9 home page; as soon as I visit, they're there for me.

As for Google, My Search History is a useful feature. The diligent researchers who I worked with at eMarketer may clamor over such a tool, considering all of the data points they need to verify every single day. Yet I'm not sold that the general public is ready for My Search History, nor is the public eager to use it (I welcome Google proving me wrong). The perceived privacy concerns will likely outweigh potential benefits.

It reminds me of an old joke a departed mentor, Irving Koslowe, liked to tell. A student in a massive lecture hall is taking an exam when the proctor calls, "Time's up!" The student keeps working, and then approaches the proctor's desk 10 minutes later. The proctor says, "I'm sorry, I can't accept this." The student says, "Do you know who I am?" The proctor says, "No, and I don't care." The student says even more forcefully, "Do you know who I am?" The proctor says, "Why should I care who you are? No, I don't know who you are." The student exclaims, "Good!" and tosses the exam into the middle of the pile, shuffling the papers on the desk.

Sometimes people just want to stay anonymous.

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