Search In Privacy Mode Shows Google Still Personalizes Results, Study Says

Consumers querying search engines like Google and Bing often think the privacy mode enables anonymity on the web, but the findings of a study released Tuesday suggest otherwise.

Google rival DuckDuckGo -- which markets its search engine based on privacy features -- released a study on Tuesday, which suggests that even when logged out of Google’s platform most people searching saw results unique to them, even when logged out and in a private browsing mode.

For example, 76 people searched Google for the term “gun control” at the same time across the U.S. logged out and in private browsing mode. They saw 62 different sets of search results, confirming that even when logged out those searching on the same term saw results that were unique to them.

DuckDuckGo also ran tests on the keywords “immigration” and “vaccinations” with similar results.

For the study, DuckDuckGo compiled 87 result sets, 76 on desktop and 11 on mobile, and restricted the study to the U.S. because different countries have different search indexes. The test conducted searches consecutively and simultaneously beginning at 9 p.m. ET on June 24, 2018.

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DuckDuckGo ran one private test where searchers were logged out, and then one where searchers were logged in. This way it would not influence the private test with prior results.

"People should not be lulled into a false sense of security that so-called 'incognito' mode makes them anonymous," according to the study. The findings suggest logging out has no effect on the variation of search results.

As the findings suggest, searchers should expect to see little variation of query results when logged out, but that’s not the case.

Google also included on the first page of search results links for some participants that it did not include for others, even when they were logged out and in private browsing mode.

In private browsing mode, logged out of Google, and with local domains replaced with localdomain.com, the term "gun control" served 19 unique domains, "immigration" served 15 unique domains, and "vaccinations" served 22 unique domains.

During the tests, DuckDuckGo also found significant variations in the News and Videos infoboxes. Here again the study shows significant variations even when searchers are logged out, even after accounting for location.

Private browsing mode and being logged out of Google offered very little protection. These tactics simply do not provide the anonymity that most people expect.

The results, per DuckDuckGo, suggest it’s not possible to use Google search and avoid its filter bubble.

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