Understanding Google Personalization

by Brett Borders

One of the most common questions I get from readers who are tracking negative content in the search results is:

“Why are are Google search results different when I use someone elses computer?”

When you’re trying to track the visibility of a negative search result (anxiously watching for it to go away), it can be maddening to watch its position arbitrarily shift around each day. The negative link may appear at the top of page 1 on your laptop in the morning, but show up on page three at the library internet terminal the same afternoon.

The reason for the fluctuation is that Google automatically customizes the search results for you. Google records all the information about what you search for and which links you click on — stores it all in a secret database somewhere — and uses it, in part, to determine which web pages and ads you would mostly likely be interested in clicking on. If you’re always clicking on your own company website, it can start to show up as #1 on your screen (but no one else’s). If you’re always clicking on a negative article on page 2, Google “thinks” its your favorite site and will move it up to the top of your search results.

If you are logged into Google (through Gmail, Android OS, AdWords, etc.)… then by default it is recording your web history. Even if you log out of Google, it tracks your searches through your IP address and a cookie stored in your browser.

How to Turn Off Google Personalization in the Search Results

  1. Sign out of your Google Account. When you’ve done this, you shouldn’t see your Google Account or e-mail address at the upper right part of the screen anymore.
  2. Search for what you want. After you see the results, click the tab that says “Web History” in the top right corner of the search results page.
  3. Click “Disable customizations based on search activity.” This should remove most of the personalization slanting, according to Google, but I don’t know if it is reliable and absolute.

After experimenting with this, you can follow Google’s instructions for permanently deleting your web history.

Two Additional Tricks to Stop Google Personalization

  1. After each search, add “&pws=0″ to the end of the URL in your browser’s address bar, hit enter and run the search again. This is a command that means “personalized web search equals zero.” Here are more instructions for disabling personalized search in Firefox and Chrome.
  2. Clear your cookies and use a proxy. A web proxy is a remote computer that you can use to mask your real IP address. Clear all the cookies from your browser, choose from this list of free web proxies, use one to connect to Google and then search from there. Your results should definitely not be influenced by your past search history.

Following these instructions should show you how the Google results appear to others, uninfluenced by your previous clicks and searches.

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