Search, Advertising, Privacy, and You

It’s been a great week for online privacy — or has it?

The top search engines: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Ask, are falling over one another in unveiling plans to reduce how much user data they retain, and for how long.

It all began in March, when Google said it would begin to delete the final portions of individual IP addresses it collects from users after 18 months, and only retain data longer if legally compelled to. And this month, Google said its cookies will expire in two years time, rather than in 2038 as has been the case until now.

Yahoo jumped in to say it intends to delete IP addresses and cookies after 13 months, unless users (or law enforcement agencies) want them to hang onto the data for a longer period.

Microsoft chimed in, saying it, too, will make Windows Live Search data anonymous after 18 months “unless the company receives user consent for a longer time period.” The retroactive policy applies Microsoft’s search portals all over the world. Search data will be stored in a different manner than data tied to personally-identifiable information (e-mail, phone numbers, etc.), and no correlation between search and other data types will be possible. Cookies will expire sooner, too.

Microsoft also says it will enable consumers to opt-out of behavioral targeting on third-party Web sites as well as allow users to search and surf its own sites without being associated with personal identifiers used for targeting.

“People should be able to search and surf online without having to navigate a complicated patchwork of privacy policies,” said Microsoft’s Chief Privacy Strategist Peter Cullen, in a statement.

Ask, meanwhile, is providing AskEraser, a tool that allows users to search while relinquishing no data whatsoever. “People should have access to privacy controls based on their level of comfort around the storage of their search data,” said Doug Leeds, VP product management.

These developments are interesting and not unwelcome. The question, really, is whether they’ll impact users’ sense of privacy and security when surfing the Web.

Data-collection and targeting opt-outs have long been in the crosshairs when it comes to consumer privacy. Remember the fallout over DoubleClick’s practices, back in 2001? Consumers have long been able to opt-out of DoubleClick’s cookies — but how many average Joes know they can, or why they might want to? How prominently will the search engines feature opt-out information? And how easy will it be for end-users to understand and to use these features?

Self-regulation is not a bad thing, of course. Against the backdrop of highly-publicized search privacy breeches like the one that befell AOL last year, it’s also hardly surprising. Add to that the fact search giants and portals are gaining more data with each new acquisition (Google just bought DoubleClick, AOL snapped up Tacoda, and Microsoft not only acquired Avenue A/Razorfish, but also just filed a patent for a technology that serves ads to users’ desktops). No wonder Washington is watching.

At the end of the day, though, is this just going through the motions? In an era when a day without Google is an endurance-type challenge in the blogosphere, does it matter if data expires in 18 months or 18 years? The cynical answer is no. Given usage trends (search is the top online activity after e-mail), it’s unrealistic to expect people not to search for over a year or more. If they stop searching on Google or Yahoo or MSN or Ask, it’s either because they’ve developed other search engine preferences — or maybe they died.

What data search engines retain and how long they hold on to it has big implications, of course, positive and negative. The ability to provide personalized search results comes immediately to mind. So does the potential for more accurate behavioral targeting and ad serving. I am liking the fact that when issued misguided and/or immoral government subpoenas for user data, whether domestically or in countries such as China, the search engines may literally have nothing to offer.

Nominate your choice of technologies, companies, and campaigns that made a positive difference in the online marketing industry in the last decade. Nominations end August 3 at 5:00 pm (EDT).

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