What does Google know about you?

Try this simple experiment: Fire up your browser and search on Google for something -say, shoes. Google presents relevant information for you in two places: Sponsored links, on the right, and the main frame where top web matches are presented. Personally, I rarely click on the sponsored links. If I really need to, I usually just type it in.

What happens when you click on a sponsored link? Well, it is reasonable to expect that the search will go through their servers, where they will store info about your search, do some accounting on it – since this is how they make money – and then send you to the landing page of the company which paid to buy that spot on adwords.

Makes sense. In fact, if you hover over the sponsored link, (image below), you will see what google does – it take you to google.com, and subsequently, you will be sent to the webpage of the company that purchased the adword. You can see this from the status bar (bottom bar of browser, which shows that it will take you to Google)

Clicking on shoes.com on the sponsored links does what you'd expect

Clicking on shoes.com on the sponsored links does what you'd expect

Ok, how if you click on the ‘shoes.com’ displayed in the main frame (on the left/below¬† the sponsored links)?¬† The first one says that it goes to shoes.com. In fact, you can hover your mouse over it, and it tells you that it goes to shoes.com, as shown in the image below:

Clicking on the 'unsponsored' links takes you straight to the link - or does it?

Clicking on the 'unsponsored' links takes you straight to the link - or does it?

Notice the status bar again – it clearly says where it will take you – to http://www.shoes.com.

Well, whats the big deal? thats probably what you are thinking. The next image illustrates what really happens – Google in fact does NOT take you directly to shoes.com (Firefox only!) – it does take you there, but once it has recorded what you are doing. Don’t believe me? Try this. Right click on the same link. Now hover over it again.Javascript (more on this later) detects a mouse click, and rewrites the URL (conveniently, via a method called rwt) to take you through the google servers before it dumps you to your destination.This is demonstrated in the image below:

What really happens when you click on a non-sponsored link

What really happens when you click on a non-sponsored link

What really happens when you click on shoes.com

Notice the status bar – For shoes.com, it changes the URL after you click on the link.

Why on earth would Google do that? To me, it is unethical to be hiding this fact.

What this means to you and me is: Unless you are much smarter than me (ok, not unlikely), your entire search history – sponsored link or not – has been captured by Google and shared with who the heck knows. Worse, if you were signed into any Google web property – gmail for instance – they know exactly what you have been doing on the web.

I would’ve had no issue with this if they had come clean. The fact that they are trying to hide it from you is something that riles me.

Oh, and firefox users: they care only about you. This does not happen on IE or Safari. What on earth are they up to? (Do not know about Opera or other lesser used browsers: please let me know)

What can you do about this? From my perspective, you should get to choose what information you reveal about yourself, and this unethical behavior (Do I hear someone say ‘Don’t be Evil?’) should be stopped. So I have a solution for you: install gono.

What is gono?

Gono is a firefox plugin that strips all the evil javascript. It will take you directly to your destination and hence not capture your information.It works for all search results, let it be in the sponsored or non-sponsored links.

Here’s what the link looks like once gono is installed:

Firefox with Gono - notice how the link is cleaned up

Firefox with Gono - notice how the link is cleaned up

Getting and installing gono

Read the instructions here and install gono.

Technical notes:

Gono works by overwriting the javascript mousedown/click event handlers that have been installed by Google. The href that they point to are redirected to the actual search results. For the sponsored results, similar work is done, expect there are no event handlers installed.

Of course, Google can change how the scripts works and break gono. And of course,I can change gono to deal with it again.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks much to Shaddi Hasan (http://sha.ddih.org/) for helping out with testing it on different platforms. It is verfied to work on Win 7, Ubuntu 9.10 and MacOS X with Firefox 3.5.6. ( I love this internet thing. How the heck would I ever have to able to get this help from someone I have never spoken to? Thanks Shaddi!)

All said and done, Google is still a great company, IMO. If they get unhappy with what I’m doing, they can really screw me over. Just demonstrates the extent to which I am dependent on them.

These transgressions are strange. (With great power comes great responsibility, and similar banal thoughts come to my mind)

One thought on “What does Google know about you?

  1. Pingback: The World Burns » Google, take the wheel.

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