You probably don’t remember what you Googled 10 minutes ago, let alone the myriad inane and fleeting things you’ve searched since the engine’s beginnings.
But unless you’re browsing in incognito mode or have tweaked your account settings, Google remembers those things. Not only that: Google logs all of your searches, analyses them, and uses them to individually personalise the search results you see – which has pretty profound implications for both literacy and privacy.
Now, the search giant has created a way for users to better understand that process. In a feature quietly rolled out last January, and surfaced by a Google blog over the weekend, users can download their search histories from Google, including things they’ve searched across computers and phones.
These histories aren’t 100-per cent comprehensive: They only include searches you’ve made while signed in on your Google account. (Admittedly, if you have Gmail, this is probably more or less most of the time.)
Google also delivers them as JSON files, which aren’t the most human-readable things. But if you download your search history from the little drop-down in the top right corner of this page, open it in your computer’s notepad or other plain-text editing app, and search for the term “query_text,” you’ll get a rundown of everything you’ve ever searched.
So what’s the point of this, exactly, besides the novelty? The stated purpose of Google Takeout, a four-year-old user data program to which this feature belongs, is to give people an easier way to transfer their data from Google to other services. If I wanted to switch my email from Gmail to AOL, for instance, I could use Google Takeout’s email archive to port all my old messages over.
But there’s a really critical literacy purpose here, as well: By seeing what data Google has on you – and in what quantities – you can also begin to understand the decisions it makes about what you do and do not see.
Google search results are famously variable: What you see when you search “ice cream” is different from what I see, or what the person next to you on the subway sees, or even what you’ll see an hour from now. That’s because Google’s pagerank algorithm is designed to surface the results that it thinks you’ll find most relevant; everything else effectively gets buried.
That’s obviously a really useful service, particularly when you’re searching something like ice cream. (At the top of my Google results right now: The best ice cream places in DC). But when it comes to heftier topics – say, the 2016 election or gender equality – what Google terms “personal relevance” could really slant the type of information you receive.
“Web & App Activity makes searches faster and enables customised experiences in Search, Maps, Now, and other Google products,” is how Google explains itself.
It’s worth checking out your search history for another reason, too: As the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned in 2012, this kind of data can tell extremely intimate things about you, from your sexual orientation to your health problems. All of that data can theoretically be subpoened from Google. (Or hacked, if it’s on your hard drive – so be careful.)
You can control how much of this information Google receives: turning off the “save search history” feature is an option through your Google Account History settings. While you’re there, you may also want to stop Google from logging where you go, who your phone contacts are, and what you watch on YouTube. Then again, this is how Google knows to tell you things like the best nearby ice cream. That trade-off’s up to you.
This article was originally featured on the Washington Post and appeared in the NZ Herald on April 22 2015. The article was written by Caitlin Dewey.