Make use of what Google knows about you

Customize your Google Web History to get an in-depth look at your online activities.

Privacy advocates aren't pleased with Google Web History, which records the sites you visit, searches you make, images and videos you view, and even sites you haven't been to but may like. When you create a Google account, the option to use Web History is checked by default. Opting out doesn't mean Google doesn't collect the information, just that you don't have such easy access to it.

It feels like I've been using Gmail for five or six years, but I found my Web history begins in January 2007, according to Google. The entries since that time are far from a complete log of all my searches and surfing; apparently, events are recorded only while you're logged into your Google account.

To open your Web history, sign into your account, click My Account in the top-right corner of the main Google screen, and choose Web History under My products. The default view is All History. Your other view options include Web, Images, News, Videos, Maps, Blogs, and even the Sponsored Links you were served up, just in case you missed them the first time.

Google Web History
View a record of your online activities in Google Web History. Google

I was ready to find all sorts of embarrassing information about myself in the logs, but they were really kinda boring, which probably indicates their accuracy. I did find several entries that didn't belong—obviously, someone borrowed my PC while I was logged into my Google account. To remove unwanted items in your history, click Remove items in the left pane, check the entry or entries you wish to excise, and click Remove.

To surf without being tracked, click the left pane's Pause button. (Frankly, I'm inclined to sign off the account altogether.) When you're ready to go back on the record, click Resume.

One of my favorite Web History features is Trends, which shows your top 10 queries, sites, and clicks over the past seven days, month, year, or all recorded. I had fun trying to figure out why I did almost three times more searching last April than I did the previous October, or why I've never searched at 2 a.m. A real shocker for me was that I search more often on Sundays than I do on Fridays. I would've never guessed that one.

Google Web History Trends
Get a view of your search history by hour, day, or month in Google Web History's Trends. Google

Maybe I should have qualms about anybody keeping such close tabs on me, but the fact is, most or all of this information is tracked whether or not I sign up for the service, unless I use an anonymizing service or product. About a year ago, I described how to customize the history settings in Firefox and Internet Explorer, and all browsers let you wipe your Web history clean, but these settings don't affect Google's servers.

Google's privacy policy offers a link to DoubleClick's opt-out cookie, but the best solution is to disable cookies altogether. Doing so cripples many of the Web's most useful features, in my book. So I'll just keep my surfing semipublic and hope Google doesn't suffer the security breach of all time.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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