It’s no longer a secret that most browsers and search engines on the Internet collect usage information. Auto-correct, location-relevant results and search suggestions are just a few of the things that search engines can improve through gathered user data. Now, the question has shifted from whether or not a search engine is tracking you to how much it’s tracking you.
All users have a right to know what of their private information they may be putting at risk when they choose to search through a particular engine. Here is an analysis of four of the most popular search engines—Google, Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo—and what they track about you and other users.
Google Search Engine
The most commonly used search engine, at least in the United States, is Google. Consequently, a study from HubSpot analyzing data from 2018 found that Google had captured 70% of the search engine market and garnered 85% of all mobile searches as well. Google’s size and popularity can be an asset; however, it also means that Google, which is one of the top seven search engines ranked by popularity, is collecting more information on you than its competitors.
While there are a number of ways Google can track you, it also tracks you literally through location services and GPS. Google’s search engine narrows down both your home location and your location throughout the day by using Google Maps and any addresses you may search for in Google’s search bar. According to Google, they use this information to suggest search results that may be more relevant to users.
Google tracks all the search terms that you type into its search bar. Information such as this is used in various ways. But the fact is that the searches are uniquely kept permanently. Even deleting your search history can’t erase from existence everything you once looked up on Google’s search engine.
When searching for videos online, almost all of the results from Google will link directly to YouTube. This should be no surprise, being that several years ago Google purchased YouTube. YouTube now operates as a subsidiary of the Google company. Making a Google account automatically provides you with a YouTube account as well.
However, what may be surprising is that Google actually tracks users’ YouTube watch history and search history. The saved information curates YouTube home pages and suggestions or search results online.
What Else Does Google Know?
Google has created its own search engine: Google Chrome. This is different than using Google’s search engine, but note that if you use Chrome, Google is able to track everything you do on the entire web. The data Google can capture is not just limited to the search engine or your searches.
Furthermore, any information put into a Google account is up for grabs by Google. This means Google can collect information from your email if you use Gmail; they can have access to your contacts and calendar entries if you use your Google calendar.
Bing Search Engine
With 33% of searches in the United States, Microsoft Bing is the second-largest search engine. Bing and Google are similar in their scope: both have grown beyond a search engine, and Bing is considered one of the most popular Google alternatives. This means that Bing too collects more information than users might realize.
Bing also saves your search history, and it keeps that information for 999 days unless manually deleted sooner. Bing collects a lot of logistical information as you use the search engine: your IP address, your general location, the time and date of your search, and what you search for. However, unlike Google, it should be understood how Microsoft stores and maintains your search history using Bing.
Bing is one of the companies that uses tracking pixels to monitor how many users visit a certain page. Microsoft, Bing’s parent company, uses these in emails and advertisements. However, when you use Bing’s search tool, a user is ultimately subjected to these tracking pixels on search results.
What Else Does Bing Know?
As mentioned above, Bing does collect your general location, but with limitations. Again, it is best to understand how Microsoft stores and maintains your search history. Cookies are a big part of Bing’s search engine. These can contribute to ad tracking too.
Yahoo Search Engine
Bing actually powers Yahoo. This means that instead of being its own entity, operated by its own parent company, Bing brings users Yahoo's search results. Technically, Yahoo operates more as a web portal than a search engine. However, Yahoo on its own has garnered 3% of the world's searches according to the aforementioned 2018 study.
Because they are powered by the same source, Yahoo collects the same types of information that Bing does. This includes saving a search history, tracking clicks, and deploying cookies to monitor users’ online activity. But it’s also worth noting that Yahoo dropped their 'Do Not Track' policy in favor of what they consider to be a more "personalized" experience.
The search engine's choice to stop honoring the Do Not Track setting on browsers, which kept Yahoo and all other websites from tracking a person’s online activity, opens users up to even more tracking. Yahoo claimed this would allow them to better personalize users’ experiences through customized ads and give them better results pages. They weren’t wrong—this is a classic example of ad tracking—but it still took privacy from users.
DuckDuckGo Search Engine
DuckDuckGo is a private, protected search engine. It is unique from Google, Bing and Yahoo in that its primary purpose is to keep users’ information private.
Saving Search Information
The only information that DuckDuckGo saves is what you search. However, this information is only saved to your computer, not to the search engine or its parent company.
Your IP address is also not recorded with DuckDuckGo. That's due to the way they structure their search engine and search results. Timestamps and locations on your searches are also not recorded. Regardless of whether or not your search saved, there will be no way to trace it back to you specifically. If you're looking for a private browsing experience, DuckDuckGo is the best option.
This list does not provide every piece of information that search engines collect, but it covers the highlights and focus of each search engine’s data collection. Each user can make their own choice as to how comfortable overall tracked by major search engines. The results may be just what you were looking for, but what’s the real cost of that?
Remember anything done on the Internet is never truly private. Stay informed, and you will be in a much better position to keep yourself—and your information—safe.