Dear Google Search History

In the 1600s, Samuel Pepys became history's most famous diarist. From 1660 to 1669, this English Member of Parliament kept a detailed diary, which was published posthumously. In it, we gain a fascinating eyewitness account of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. Most passages were not so monumental, however. Here's one example from July of 1663:

Up betimes to my office, and there all the morning doing business, at noon to the Change, and there met with several people, among others Captain Cox, and with him to a Coffee [House], and drank with him and some other merchants. Good discourse. Thence home and to dinner, and, after a little alone at my viol, to the office, where we sat all the afternoon, and so rose at the evening, and then home to supper and to bed, after a little musique.

Sounds like Sam pretty much polished work off by noon and spent the rest of the time drinking, gossiping, playing the ol' viol and listening to some tunes. All in all, not a bad life! No wonder he had the free time to write about it.



The Diary I Didn't Know Existed...

I never considered myself a diarist. I'm much too busy actually trying to get through my life to spend time writing about it. I suppose the odd blog post would be autobiographical, but other than that, I didn't think I was leaving an account of my day-to-day thoughts. I was wrong.

Some time ago, I signed up for a Google Analytics account for my blog and at the time, I somehow activated Google's Personal Search History function. Because I have a laptop, and tend to use the same computer at work and at home, I was unknowingly capturing a pretty complete snapshot of all my search activity. Just a few days ago, I realized I was still logged in. Today, I took a look back at two months of search activity.

...A Day-by-Day, Search-by-Search History...

First of all, in the past two months, I've searched 540 times. That's an average of 9 searches a day. In looking at the log of day-to-day activity, I can pretty much tell exactly what I was doing, and what thoughts preoccupied me, on any given day from May 11 to today. The topics are a little scattered. In a one-hour period on June 5, I went from looking for what an average winning percentage was on Freecell (don't ask), to looking up the details on a new business contact, to looking for a new design template for my blog, to looking for GPS software for an upcoming trip to Europe. Can you say attention deficit?

In a quick analysis of my activity, it seems that 59 percent of my search activity is work-related, and 41 percent is personal. Twenty-eight percent of my searches were navigational (I knew what site I wanted to end up on, and was using the search engine to get there) and 71 percent were what I call "mapping" searches (where I was looking for the search engine to suggest sites I was previously unaware of). And in 34 percent of my searches, I never actually clicked on a result.

...And That Was Just Mine...

The point is not to go on about how I search. You could care less. The point is that search history gave me a snapshot of just what I was thinking about, at an average of about nine times a day. In looking back, I could remember what I was working on, what products I suddenly thought I needed, how much planning I was doing for an upcoming vacation, what new acquaintances I suddenly decided to Google to find out more about, and what arguments needed to be settled. I'd see queries come up, disappear for a few days, then suddenly re-emerge later, either in the same or modified form. It made me realize how integral online is to my life, and how much I depend on search to connect me to the vast and diverse content that sits out there. It mirrored my thoughts about upcoming purchases, life events, things that were bothering me, issues at work and just plain old time-wasters.

Now consider the implications of this. I'm one person, who actually lived the life in question, and I was amazed by the insight gained by looking back. Consider this data in aggregate form. No wonder John Battelle was blown away by what he called the "database of intentions," this gargantuan deposit of data that is owned by the search engines, providing intimate glimpses into individuals at the micro level, and incredibly granular macro mosaics as we step back. Based on the search trail and clickstream I looked at, Google, if it chooses to, would know more about me than my wife (keep the snarky comments to yourself). And remember, search history is just the data Google chooses to make public. Through the tool bar, it's capturing a lot more clickstream data on you.

...What About Yours?

The whole "Big Brother" aspect of this has been commented on numerous times in the past. Sure, it's frightening, but I think it's tied up in the new reality of our online world. Is the fact that it sits in the hands of a private corporation any more troubling than the huge amount of personal information that sits in government files? Theoretically, we have democratic recourse with the government, but we all know how much weight that holds. Take some comfort in the fact that Google, with all its billions and resources, has exactly 1.5 people working in its sales and market research department (although I'm hearing rumors of a new addition). For the foreseeable future, Google might have a frightening amount of data, but it doesn't have anyone with the time to look at it.


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