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Survey: people don't like personalized results and search tracking. Or do they?

March 12, 2012
google search

Over the last few weeks, privacy has been a hot topic of debate in tech circles, a debate spurred by several high profile issues involving private data, from your location and contact lists, to the pictures on your smartphone. Just to recap, we have Apple’s “Locationgate”, Path’s contact list uploading, and the bug on iOS/feature on Android that let apps access the photos on your SD card without consent.

Another significant development came when Google updated and unified the privacy policies of dozens of its products, claiming the right to track your information across all its products, in order to “create a simple product experience that does what you need, when you want it to”. The move drew the ire of several privacy watchdogs and the scrutiny of regulators, with Google fighting back by claiming that its sole purpose is to improve its services.

Now, a study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that, while users are overwhelmingly satisfied by the quality of Google’s search results, most of them don’t agree to being tracked. But isn’t this tendency contradictory?

People like great results, they just don’t like how Google gets them

A caveat: Pew asked people about search engines in general, but considering the huge share that Google enjoys in web search, it’s safe to consider that the survey’s results reflect the users’ opinion on Google.

According to the survey by Pew, most Americans are satisfied or very satisfied with the results that Google serves. 91% of users say they always or most of the time find the information they are seeking when they use search engines and 73% of all users consider that the results returned by search engines are trustworthy.

On to the dark side. A vast majority of Internet users don’t like that search engines, websites, and apps track their personal information, even if they do it to provide a better service. Moreover, most consumers say that they dislike the fact that search engines deliver personalized results, which are of course obtained by tracking their web activity. 73% of the users that answered Pew’s survey consider that personalized searches and targeted ads are an invasion of privacy.

Wow, it’s great! People actually care about privacy issues. Or do they?

Now, we should take these results with a grain of salt, from several reasons. The most important would be the way the questions were worded. I am convinced that most “regular” users know little about how Google or other search engines operate, and choose the answer that sounds right. For example: “I would NOT BE OKAY with a search engine keeping track of your searches and using that information to personalize your future search results because you feel it is an invasion of privacy”. To me, the answer to the question suggests that personalized search equals invasion of privacy, and I think that most people understand it in the same way.

I don’t want to suggest that privacy is not a big deal or something we should all be worried about. It’s just that people often choose the “right” answers in a survey, even if it doesn’t reflect their true vision. It’s the effect TV ratings surveyors encountered years ago, when a disproportionate number of people used to claim that they watched PBS, when they really watched sitcoms and reality shows.

I am just saying that, in spite of the large proportions of pro-privacy responses in Pew’s survey, people actually know (or care) very little about their online privacy, about how it affects them, and about what they can do to protect it. The proof: the huge proportion of users that fully trust Google and other search engines to provide them with quality, relevant information.