Search engines have tools called crawlers that collect and index all the public information online, but they also collect unique information about you to customize your search results and increase their revenue from advertisers.
For example, by collecting your location and the date when you search for “pizza” they can deliver results relevant to your location – not for some place across the country – and deliver time-sensitive ads (like this week’s specials on pizza at a place near you, for example).
Information collected may also includei:
The type of computer, operating system and browser you are using so they can best display results for you
What you have searched about in the past. Every search query you make is likely stored to give the company and their advertisers a better understanding of your interests
Your timezone, the language you want results displayed in, and how often you search
Whether you have safe search filters turned on, to know if they should omit some results
If you create an account with the search engine, they may also know:
Your full name, street address, city, state and zip code
Your gender, age, interests, friends, email account, phone number, and password
Your friends and your pictures
If you make purchases they may not only know what you purchased, who you purchased it from and how you paid; they may also know your credit or debit card numbers, their expiration dates, your banks and those passwords.
Each piece of information may be used to help customize your search results and make advertisements you see more relevant. This is why the search results you see for a keyword search are likely to be different than a friend’s results.
Now you understand how paid advertisements get on your search results page, but how do the “unpaid for” search results get selected?
If you type in a phrase like ‘barking dogs’ you’ll see nearly 10 million results. Something has to decide which pages land on top in your results. That something is a set of mathematical rules that not only evaluate how many links a page has but how important or popular the sites that link to and from the page are. This illustration can help you visualize how page ranking is calculated.
Of course, no website wants to land on page 3 (or 300!) in a web search result because no one will ever find them. So companies spend a lot of money trying different ways to increase their visibility and be seen in the top results.
To improve a website’s ranking an entire new multi-billion dollar business called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was created. These businesses help websites improve their ranking by getting a website linked to other sites, using better keywords to describe the site and use in the site’s content, leveraging social media promotions, redesigning websites and more.
What this means is that even the “unpaid for” search results you see probably got there because companies or organizations spent a great deal of money to get their website listed at the top. Many people think that the sites that are displayed first will be the best sites. This is incorrect. They may just be the sites that paid the best SEO companies to have their sites linked to a lot and optimized so their search rankings come out on top.
Understanding how search engines collect information, how they use your search keywords or phrases, how they leverage the information they know about you, and how both the advertised results and the top results in the “unpaid for” section are actually paid for, gives you the ability to make informed choices about your searches and search results. This lets you judge for yourself if the results you got are the ones you want rather than the ones companies steered you to.
With all the information a search engine may be storing about you, you probably have some real privacy questions. And you should. Right now it is very difficult to learn what information online companies are storing about you, and this is something that companies and government regulators are trying to address.