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Does Google Know Your MSN & Y! Searches?

Posted in: Browsers,Google,JavaScript,Search Engines,Security by Richard Hearne on November 17, 2006
Internet Marketing Ireland

When it comes to Search Engines, it pays to know how they tick and what tickles their fancy. Of course, the majors tend not to broadcast their techniques too loudly lest all those kindly spammers hear about it.

Patents can reveal a lot

It is important to follow the technical aspect of search engines. There is undoubtedly one person who is the authority on both today’s technology and the technology the search engines are currently building to serve us tomorrow. He is Bill Slawski of SEO by the Sea.

Patent watching

SEObytheSEA specialises in patent watching. Yesterday I saw Bill Slawski’s post about Microsoft snooping Google search history. It’s quite interesting from a number of perspectives. But first a little background on what’s going on.

Firefox search.suggest

It appears that Firefox has a little known service called search suggest. Search suggest is controlled via the browser.search.suggest.enabled parameter and basically allows third party access to the search history of your search bar.

So whenever you use the built in search bar of Firefox the search query is added to your history so that suggestions can be made based on your prior behaviour.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Apparently Firefox allows third party search plug-ins access to your history so that they too can offer suggestions based on your previous searches. But whereas you might presume that one search engine wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, have access to searches executed on another, well, you’d be wrong.

Microsoft Live sniffing around Google searches?

Apparently Microsoft Live suggested some of Bill’s previous Google queries. Bill then saw that his search history was being sent to Microsoft Live via the browser.search.suggest feature of Firefox. That feature transports your history via a JSON encoded file when this feature is turned on.

The Microsoft Patent

Of course SEObytheSEA is renowned for its coverage of search engine patents. Low and behold, haven’t Microsoft a patent (published November 16) entitled ‘System and method for automatic generation of suggested inline search terms’.

Privacy Ramifications

The default setting of browser.search.suggest.enabled is TRUE in the latest version of Firefox (2.0). (This can be changed via about:config.)

This means that if you are using the built in search bar, a search engine can see your query history regardless of whether it executed those queries. From the SEO by the SEA post:

I performed a search in Windows Live for a term that I don’t believe I ever searched for before on a search engine. I then went to Google Suggest, and started typing in the first couple of letters of the that word to see if it would suggest my Windows Live search term.

It did.

While most people understand that additional toolbars (e.g. Google Toolbar) commonly track your behaviour, it may not be apparent that your search history is made available via this relatively unknown feature of Firefox 2.0.

Of course it’s not as if the major search engines aren’t already collecting enough data on us….

[Some concerned viewers might be interested in CustomizeGoogle plugin for Firefox.]

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  1. Hi Richard,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    I found myself extremely surprised that Firefox was sharing query history. I’m going to have to pay more attention to developments in browsers these days, too. I wonder if IE 7 has a similar feature. :)

    Comment by Bill Slawski — November 17, 2006 @ 8:17 pm

  2. Thank you very much for commenting, and thank you more for the great stuff you publish over on SEObytheSEA. (‘stuff’ in the most flattering sense)

    I’ve been a closet fan for quite a while – you’re their in my reader.

    Comment by Richard Hearne — November 17, 2006 @ 8:21 pm

  3. Thank you, Richard.

    I wasn’t too excited about the Microsoft patent application because it seems so similar to what Google is doing with Google suggest.

    But the Firefox query history, with the portability of queries was a total surprise, and as you note, is a privacy concern that I hadn’t even guessed at until I saw it happen in front of me.

    Definitely good to hear from you, and have someone to bounce ideas off concerning some of the new technology hinted at in patents from the search engines.



    Comment by Bill Slawski — November 17, 2006 @ 8:43 pm

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