Google personalisation: web history isn’t the only problem

On March 1st a major change to how Google uses your search and personal information will be implemented. Under the innocent sounding title “Updating our privacy policies and terms of service” ( Google announced in January that it is consolidating more than 60 privacy policies into a single main Privacy Policy. (You can preview the new policy at Until now there have been separate Terms and Conditions and policies for each Google product (YouTube, Gmail, Reader etc). From March 1st there will be just one. In principle this is a good thing and makes sense, but Google have used this to sneak in changes in how it uses your search behaviour to personalise results.

Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.

In the past, data such as your web history was kept separate from other Google products. It will now be combined with information that Google has gleaned from its other services, for example YouTube, and your results personalised accordingly. A lot has been made of deleting and disabling the web history associated with your account. It’s simple enough to do by logging in to your account and going to From here you can delete entries and disable your web search history altogether.

You may, though, prefer to keep your web history. Several groups I have talked to over the last couple of months share a Google account for the library or their subject team and use it to keep track of searches and sites they have visited. One example they gave me involved a student who came back to them asking for another copy of the paper that they had given him three weeks previously. He had lost it, forgotten who the authors were, could barely remember the title and definitely could not recall the journal! Trying to repeat the search was no good; it was difficult enough attempting to recreate the search string and in any case Google had made so many changes to web search that the results would have looked totally different anyway. By using the search history the librarians managed to locate not only the search but also the document they had retrieved for the student.

Unfortunately the Web History is not the only piece of information that Google uses when personalising results. To get an idea of what it could be using take a look at your Google account dashboard by going to Now is the time to do a spot of spring cleaning and remove any “stuff” you no longer use or need. It won’t be possible to remove everything but you may be surprised at how much clutter there is in your account. I have told Google a lot about myself including links to other services and networks that I use. Being self employed it is one way of promoting and advertising what I do but now Google’s attempt at personalisation has become increasingly annoying. Two weeks ago I went into YouTube. I have told Google that I live in Reading in the UK and YouTube automatically presented me with videos from ReadingBerkshireUK (note that I do NOT subscribe to this channel).

The videos about the redevelopment of Reading Station and local transport are relevant but I was not tempted to view any of them – I see enough of it first hand every day. As for Reading Football Club I regret to say that I have no interest in football whatsoever. When I visited YouTube this morning it had given up trying to persuade me to click on Reading videos and decided to push content that had been shared by members of my Google+ circles. Most of it was irrelevant.

We can expect to see a lot more of this type of intrusion in the future as Google is determined to ram Google+ down our throats (see And the next Google killer is….Google! There are even reports that people setting up a new account for YouTube, Gmail, or any other Google product are being forced to set up a Google+ account. (Google Now Forcing All New Users To Create Google+ Enabled Accounts If you do not want this cross-fertilisation to occur then sign out of your account before searching. But have you noticed how insistent Google is that you have an account and that you are signed in? The new Google home page has removed the cog wheel that gave access to Advanced Search and Language tools from the top right hand corner of the screen. Instead there is now a prominent button exhorting you to “Sign in”.

Once you have carried out a search the cog wheel comes back but it is underneath the persistent Sign in link.

If you are a heavy user of Google services it can be a nuisance having to sign out each time you want to conduct a search. I now have two browsers open on my desktop: one signed out for searching, the other for Google+, Gmail, Blogger etc. Ironically, an alternative is to install Chrome, which is Google’s own browser. This has an Incognito option that depersonalises your search and removes traces of your activity when you close it down. It will keep any bookmarks that you make and files that you save during the session.

In summary, to take back control of your search:

1. Review and prune what is in your Google account’s dashboard

2. Decide whether or not the web history is going to be useful to you. If it isn’t, delete and disable it.

3. Sign out of your account before searching, or use a separate “un-signed in” browser, or use Chrome Incognito

Top search tips from UKeiG Google workshop

UKeiG organised a workshop on Google, which was held on 8th February 2012 and hosted by Birimngham University. (My slides for the day can be found on authorSTREAM and on Slideshare). Twenty-two people from a variety of backgrounds and sectors attended the event and their combined Top 10 Tips are listed below.

1. An understanding of how Google works and is messing up “improving” search is vital. Minor changes in functionality and ranking algorithms can cause havoc and are impossible to counter unless you know what is going on. Google’s various official blogs are a starting point but they don’t tell you everything. Identify and monitor blogs from searchers and organisations that monitor what Google and other search engines are up to. (A selection are listed on the final slide of the presentation).

2. “Google assumes that all searchers are stupid and don’t know how to search” said one workshop participant! It takes far too many decisions on their behalf: automatically corrects what it thinks are typographical errors, excludes and adds terms to the search without asking, changes results according to past searching behaviour, and gives priority to network connections. To bring Google to heel, learn how to use advanced search commands and the options available in the menus on the left hand side of the results pages.

3. If you have a Google account investigate your Dashboard ( This contains all of the information you have given Google about yourself plus data that Google has collected from your various accounts such as Gmail and Google Reader. Clear out anything you don’t need or use (you won’t be able to do this for everything) and make sure you are not sharing anything that you want kept private, for example docs and maps.

4. Order matters. Changing the order in which you type in your search terms will change the order of your results. The pages that contain the terms in the order you specified in your search are usually given a higher weighting. Also keep an eye on any oddities when combining advanced search commands. For example the search allintitle:diabetic retinopathy comes up with sensible results. Switch the order to allintitle:diabetic retinopathy and Google totally loses the plot.

Site and Allintitle commands combined in the wrong order


5. Be aware that Google no longer searches for all of your terms all of the time. It now does what it calls a ‘soft AND’. See the first comment to my blog posting on this issue at If you want all of your terms to appear in your documents exactly as you typed them in then you have to use….

6. Verbatim. This tells Google to carry out an exact match search. Run your search as normal and then use Verbatim in the menu on the left hand side of your results page. It is normally hidden from view so click on ‘More search tools’ at the bottom of the menu and Verbatim is right at the bottom. It appears that you can use advanced search commands such as filetype:, site:, and the tilde (~) with Verbatim but it cannot be combined with the date options or ‘Pages from the UK’ in the results page menus.

7. Public Data Explorer is one of Google’s many well kept secrets. It can be found at and allows you to search data sets from organisations such as the IMF, OECD and World Bank. You can compare the data in various ways and there are several chart options.

8. Google has a habit of hiding and moving links to resources and tools such as the Public data Explorer, Advanced Search and Language Tools. Bookmark them so that you can always find them (unless, of course, Google decides to remove them altogether).

9. Three tools that are intended for people maintaining websites can also be useful to searchers in identifying trends, alternative search terms, and research into key players and competitors in a sector.

Google Trends – can be used to view search trends over time and to compare multiple search terms

Google Trends for Websites – looks at search trends for individual websites or you can compare several websites. In addition it shows what people  ‘Also visited’ and ‘Also searched for’.

Google Insights for Search – advanced options for identifying search trends including countries and categories.

If you are responsible for content on your web pages these tools can help identify terms that could increase traffic to your site.

10. If you have had enough of Google and do not feel secure with the way it monitors your activity and personalises results try DuckDuckGo ( as an alternative. DDG does not track, filter or personalise and several people found some of the results to be better than Google’s. Many of the workshop participants had tried Bing but there was little enthusiasm for it. They had found that the results were not as relevant as Google’s and there was concern over Bing’s links with Facebook, personalisation and what it calls “adaptive search”. Google is so often considered the bad guy because of the amount of personal information it gathers but it does at least show users a lot of what has been collected about them. The same cannot be said for Bing.


Top search tips from London

Sixteen people attended the two half day search workshops that I ran on Monday, 6th February 2012. As usual, I asked them at the end of the session to come up with a list of what they thought they would find really useful. Below, in no particular order, is a combined list of top tips.

1. intitle:

If there is too much “noise” in your results list try searching for your terms in the title of the document. This will ensure that your subject is the main focus of the article. Prefix a single terms with intitle: or if you want all of your terms in the title use allintitle:

For example:


allintitle:diabetic retinopathy

2. Advanced search screen

If you are unsure about using advanced search commands use the advanced search screen. A link to this can usually be found under the cog wheel in the top right hand corner of the Google screen. Google has a bad habit of moving this link around periodically so bookmark the address in case the link disappears.

3. site:

Use the site: command to search within a single site or type of site.

For example:

diabetes diagnosis

pancreatic cancer statistics OR

4. The results page left hand menu

The menu on the left hand site of the results page has options that can be used to focus and narrow down your search. Open up the ‘More’ links to ensure you are seeing the full range of options. The menus change in content depending on the type of resource you are searching, for example images, blogs, news.

5. Check ad preferences and your dashboard

Check your ad preferences and your dashboard (if you have a Google account) to see what Google thinks you are interested in and what information Google has on you.

For your ad preferences go to Google monitors what you search and lists on this page the categories it thinks you are interested in. It then delivers targeted ads that reflect these interests. You can edit the categories, delete them or opt out altogether. If your computer is set up to regularly delete cookies you will not see any categories.

To see your dashboard, sign in to your Google account and go to This contains all of the information you have given Google about yourself plus other information such as your social contacts, which Google has collected from your various accounts such as Gmail and Google Reader. Clear out anything you don’t need or use (you won’t be able to do this for everything) and make sure you are not sharing anything that you want kept private for example docs and maps.

6. Web History

One of the things that Google uses to personalise your search results is what you have searched for and clicked on in the past. This is stored in your web history and there are two: one that records your history when you are not logged in to a Google account and one for when you are. You can disable the ‘logged out’ web history from the Web History link under the cog wheel in the top right hand corner of the Google screen. Your ‘logged in’ web history can be viewed and managed from within your dashboard Some people find the web history useful so you might want to keep it.

7. Verbatim

Google no longer automatically searches for all of your search terms and the plus sign can no longer be used in Google web search to force an exact match search. If you want all of your terms included in your search and to stop Google looking for variations, run your search and then use Verbatim in the menu on the left hand side of your results page. Click on ‘More search tools’ at the bottom of the menu and Verbatim is right at the bottom. Verbatim cannot be combined with the date options or ‘Pages from the UK’

8. filetype:

Use filetype: to search for particular types of information or reports for example PowerPoints for presentations, spreadsheets for data and statistics or PDF for research papers and industry/government reports. Note that filetype:ppt will not pick up the newer .pptx so you will need to include both in your search, for example

filetype:ppt OR filetype:pptx

You will also need to include .xlsx if you are searching for Excel spreadsheets and .docx for Word documents.

9. Numeric range search 

Use this for anything to do with numbers – years, temperatures, weights, distances, prices etc. Use the boxes on the Advanced Search screen or just type in your two numbers separated by two full stops as part of your search:

macular degeneration statistics UK 2009..2012

10. Minus to exclude terms from a search

To exclude pages containing a term prefix the term with a minus sign.

11. Dictionary

For definitions of a term use the Dictionary option in the menu on the left hand side of your results page. (You will have to click on ‘More search tools’ at the bottom of the menu).

12. DuckDuckGo

Try DuckDuckGo ( as an alternative to Google web search. No filtering, no personalisation and a lot less rubbish!

13. Search Translated foreign pages

For a different perspective, search for pages and sites in other languages. Use ‘Translated foreign pages’ in the results page side menu. This is another option that Google hides so to reveal it you will have to click on ‘More search tools’ at the bottom of the menu.

14. Tilde (~) for synonyms

Use the tilde (~) before a word to include synonyms in your search. This can be used with Verbatim if you want an exact match for most of your terms but are happy for Google to include variations on one or two of the others.