On October 26, Google announced it would give more data security control back to its users, as they will now be able to review and delete their recent Search activity, as well as allowing them to learn more about Google Search works with their own data. In the coming weeks, these options will be available from within Search on desktop and mobile and in the Google app for iOS and Android.
In the past, individuals looking to review or manage their data would have been navigated away to their Google Account to make changes. A user of Google products generates data about his or her activity. For Search, this data includes the terms searched for, links interacted with, and other information such as current location when based on IP address or GPS.
A Search History Primer
Did you know Google handles 90% of the world’s searches and does over 500 algorithm updates a year? To understand why this move is significant, let’s take a stroll back to the late 1980’s and 1990’s for a brief primer of search engine technology. The human mind operates by association. And search engines used to be indexed by humans. In the early days of the web, Google was a pure information indexing engine that cataloged content according to page ranks and linking “votes.” Back when your dial-up modem (powered by copper wire) screeched its way through its navigation of AOL, Alta Vista, Inktomi, Lycos, AskJeeves, and Yahoo.
Gerard Salton was the father of modern search technology. His teams at Harvard and Cornell developed the SMART informational retrieval system. Salton’s Magic Automatic Retriever of Text included important concepts like the vector space model, Inverse Document Frequency (IDF), Term Frequency (TF), term discrimination values, and relevancy feedback mechanisms.
The first few hundred web sites began in 1993, and most of them were at colleges. But long before most of them existed, there was Archie, the first search engine created in 1990 by Alan Emtage, who was a student at McGill University in Montreal. The original intent of the name was “archives,” but it was shortened to Archie. This engine helped solve this data scatter problem by combining a script-based data gatherer with a regular expression matcher for retrieving file names matching a user query. Essentially, Archie became a database of web filenames which it would match with the users queries.
Enter Tim Berners-Lee, another early web pioneer. In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also created the Virtual Library, which is the oldest catalogue of the web. (For reference, there are two books on the history of Search of note: Weaving the Web, by Tim Berners-Lee and The Search, by John Battelle, commonly referred to as the Bob Woodward of Silicon Valley.)
Modern Day ‘Mad Men’
Google introduced AdWords in 2000 so they could distribute their ads around the web. By 2007, the company was making 34% of its revenue from ads. Today, the company, whose parent is known as Alphabet who reported $33.7 billion in revenue last week, is a much more than a tangled spider web of unstructured data indexing data by page rank.
Google is a massive media conglomerate and advertising company that we invite into the car, bedroom, and boardroom, collecting browsing habits, preferences, purchases, and lives of as many web users as possible, all gleaned through massive data aggregation and analysis. 24/7. This is how they now make more than 86% of the company’s revenue from ads.
Search Engine Tides Turning
Facebook and Google have signed up for new internet standards, which will require internet companies to respect data privacy and “support the best in humanity.” According to Financial Times, the standards were designed by World Wide Web Founder Tim Berners-Lee, who last week warned that the technology giants are now so dominant they might need to be broken up.
Nearly 60 companies, governments, and business leaders have signed up for the contract, including Facebook, Google, the French government, and billionaire Richard Branson. Remember Tim Berners-Less? Last week the search tech veteran announced that he would be introducing a plan to decentralize the Web to empower users to take back power from the forces that have profited from its centralization. His company, called Inrupt, was built around a platform that gives users a choice about where their data is stored and how it is used.
This movement toward giving humans more control than the “spiders” could actually save Google from itself. Google then shuttered Google+ in October, after The Wall Street Journal reported on a previously undisclosed data exposure that left personal information from more than 500,000 of the social network’s users out in the open. The company does have a long history of taking user’s privacy into account. This legacy is showing up in moves such as the collective effort to update internet standards to “support the best in humanity”.