After all, who wants to read about what Google plans to do with all that information it has about us?
I, too, click “Dismiss” when the notification box pops up.
That's because the very idea of considering what Google knows about me can give me a panic attack. And, if that happens, I may want to Google “panic attacks,” and then I’ll wonder if my insurance company will find out that I was searching “panic attacks,” or, worse, that one day I will apply for a new insurance company and the side effects of having considered what Google knows will result in a denial of coverage. But I digress.
Whether we decide to learn more or dismiss the opportunity, how much Google knows about its users has been a topic of international debate.
The tech giant collects various user data including search history, location, and voice searches to help improve its services and provide relevant ads. However, some users might be surprised to know they can easily take a look at all of the data Google has on them.
To help you better manage your online privacy here’s where to find out what Google knows about you—and how to limit what information is shared.
1. Learn What Google Thinks Are Your Interests
One of the more interesting ways to check out what Google has inferred from your online actions starts by heading over to its Ad Settings page where, if you're signed into your Google account, you'll see a profile Google has built for you based on your search history, YouTube history, and interests.
For example, Google knows that I’m a female, aged 25-34. However, since writing articles involves researching a broad range of topics, Google has unfortunately missed the mark on a few of my “interests.”
Exploring Google Ad Settings also allows you to decide whether or not to continue seeing ads based on your interests. Personally, I’ve opted out before and found that I’d prefer to have more targeted ads since they occasionally show me more relevant information, but to each their own.
Finally, in bold text near the bottom of the page, users are given the option to install Google’s DoubleClick opt-out extension, which permanently blocks the cookie Google uses to track your actions across the web.
2. Take a Look at What Google Is Sharing With Advertisers
Much like the information Facebook shares with advertisers, Google has a business-oriented tool called Google Analytics. It helps publishers see what pages you have viewed on their website, how many times you have visited it, how long did you stay, etc.
Businesses will use this information to try and improve your web experience. For example, if I have a small business website and I notice I’m getting a lot of visitors, but not a ton of business, I might look at my website’s analytics to understand at what point visitors are leaving the website—something we call “dropping off.”
And, let’s say that 80% of web visitors are dropping off at the “Contact Us” page of my imaginary website. That information would lead me to wonder what’s wrong with that page, and how to make it better.
With that imaginary scenario in mind, understand that not all the data collected from your internet usage is examined with nefarious intentions—or even by big corporations. Like the tools provided for Facebook advertisers, data helps businesses decide how to better their business practices and best proceed.
That being said, it’s okay not to want your every online action to be an unintentional comment card! To back out of Google Analytics is also pretty simple, just go here.
3. Find Out Where Google Thinks You’ve Been
If you have given Google the okay, it will use your smartphone to track your location—and, depending on your settings, share that information.
The function is called Location History, and it exists to improve the results you get when searching for directions on Google Maps, commute predictions, and even search results, all by creating a private map of where you go with your logged-in devices.
However, knowing that a search engine is tracking your location can feel a little intrusive.
To discover whether or not Google has been tracking where you go, view your entire Location History here, on your Timeline. The good news is that it’s pretty straightforward to take control of this function. You can change or delete locations, days, or your entire Location History, as well as turn it on or off at any time.
Sharing your location data is only relevant to those carrying Android devices, as the option to do so is chosen when configuring your phone. You can see if you are sharing this info under Activity Controls and view exact locations that are stored for you by clicking Manage Activity.
4. Rediscover Your Entire Google Search History
Have you ever heard a friend joke that, should they unexpectedly die, the first thing you should do is delete their browser history? Don’t forget to clear their search history, too.
Google saves every single search you have ever done. On top of that, they record every Google ad you have clicked on. A complete and detailed history of your web searches and activity is available here, on the Web & App Activity page.
This information is totally private—in fact, you’ll have to authenticate your password just to view it. And, thank goodness, because knowing a complete and detailed account of everything you’ve ever searched exists is enough to bring on one of those aforementioned panic attacks.
You can delete your past searches or other activity from your Web & App Activity page. However, to ensure that future searches aren’t saved, you must also visit your Activity Controls page and turn the switch to “Off.”
Pro Tip: If you only occasionally want to prevent your searches from being saved, you can search within an incognito window in Google Chrome while not signed in to your Google Account. If you're using a browser other than Google Chrome, check your browser's help instructions to see whether it has a similar private browsing mode.
5. Choose What Information You Share With a Privacy Checkup
The good news is that keeping tabs on what information Google has learned about you from various sources no longer requires schlepping through pages of fine print, thanks to the introduction of About Me. Here, you’ll see the basics that are shared with the public as your Google+ profile—an often-neglected aspect of using a Gmail account.
To find out what other information Google is privy to, go to My Account and then click “Your Personal Info.” This is where you can check what contact information Google has on file, as well as control Google’s ability to track your search history, share your location, and even disallow endorsements.
If going through Your Personal Info unguided is overwhelming, Google hopes to make the task easier by introducing a Privacy Checkup function.
This takes you through a wizard to help you decide and configure what you want to be visible about you across various Google services.
Starting with your Google+ profile, the Privacy Checkup allows you to decide whether visitors to it should be able to see your photos, YouTube videos, community posts, and reviews.
One of the more important settings for controlling your personal data is an option that reads “Don’t feature my publicly shared Google+ photos as background images on Google products & services.” It's unticked by default, so if you don't want Google to use the photos you share on G+ in its promotional material or elsewhere, you should tick it.
Below that, you can click through to your Shared Endorsements settings, where you can instruct Google not to use your profile and personal information in adverts along with reviews you've posted. If you're happy for your public profile to be associated with your reviews and potentially used in adverts, you can tick a box that says “Based upon my activity, Google may show my profile name, profile photo, and activity in shared endorsements that appear in ads.”
As you go through the checkup, you can also allow or block Google from publicly associating your phone number with your Google profile so people who have your number can use Google for caller ID or contact you via Hangouts, whether your YouTube likes and playlists are publicly available, whether geolocation data is included when you share a photo, and check and clear the information Google stores about your searches and activity.
Bottom Line: Your Privacy Is Your Responsibility
To some users, the mere tracking of our individual internet usage violates Google’s official corporate motto of “Don’t be evil.” However, the company does say that your privacy is important to them—and they continue to make steps to try and prove it.
Bottom line: Google has a lot of handy services, but as the company gains more and more information from its users, those users may raise even more questions about how big Google should be allowed to get, and whether the government needs to step in and strictly regulate how Google's overwhelming amount of information is used.
But, until someone steps in, it’s up to each and every one of us to take responsibility for our own privacy settings, so that there’s no confusion regarding what’s shared—even if that means choosing “Learn More.”
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to plug this week’s schedule into my Google Calendar, get caught up with my Gmail, catch up on my blog reading with Google Reader and then watch a few of my favorite videos on YouTube. (While we are on the subject, Click here to subscribe to HighYa’s YouTube channel.)