How to Explore What Google Knows About You

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Find out What Google Knows. yuoak / Getty Images

While Google is fairly transparent about this fact, it's something to always keep in mind: Google knows a lot about you. Let's look at where you can find out what Google knows and some reasons why it may be useful to have Google gathering that information.

Before you begin, it may be helpful to look at Google's privacy statements and understand that you can control some of that data. Google knows users are wary of trusting them with their private data, so Google has gone out of the way to make the case that it's up to the task.

And don't worry, the statements are interactive and user-friendly.

Why Is This Useful?

If you've ever found a great site, video, or image and forgotten where you found it, you can go right back and revisit it, complete with a link. In the case of Google Maps, you can find out where you asked Google for directions (such as from your Android phone) so you can find those places again.

You can even find information inside websites that already require logins, such as pages you may have visited on Facebook.

You can also search against your own history. This is great to drill down results if you remember part of a name or you can find the date you looked something up or visited a location.

This is powerful information, so be sure you secure your Google account with two-step authentication. That's a good idea whether or not you're comfortable with Google's data collection.

Google My Activity

First, you can visit your own history by going to My Activity at  myactivity.google.com/myactivity.

 

This is a secure area that only you can view, and from here you can see:

  • YouTube (the videos you've watched while logged into your account)
  • Chrome activity (if you use the Chrome browser while logged into your profile and not in incognito mode)
  • Maps (any Google Maps searches while logged in on any device)
  • Google Searches  (both from Chrome or from your Android) 
  • Image Search (same)
  • Android (which apps you've opened on your Android)

Items are clustered into groups, and you can delete individual or groups of items from your history if you choose.

YouTube

Your YouTube activity (YouTube is owned by Google) is divided into two sections. First, there are the YouTube videos you've watched (found on the My Activity page) and then there is your YouTube search history, which is still found on YouTube. In the case of watching YouTube videos, you may not have actually visited YouTube's site to do that. For example, a lot of news sites embed YouTube content directly into articles.

More Activity

Within Google My Activity, you can tab to the different areas, but you can also change your view (and bulk delete) by going to the hamburger menu on the upper left corner (that's the three horizontal stripes). If you select More Activity, you'll find additional options, such as the location timeline, device history, sound search history, and Google Ads settings.

Google Maps Timeline

Your location history, or your Google Maps timeline view, shows you every place you've visited while using an Android with location history on.

Remember, this is a privacy-locked page. You should see a lock symbol on every page in this area. If you're sharing your map location with others, they still cannot see this page.

As a personal travel map, this is amazing. You can also explore interactive tabs to see the places you've most frequently visited or the timeline of trips you took. You can also see at a glance if you've specified a work or home location on Google Maps.

If you take a vacation, this is a great way to revisit your trip and see what you explored. You could also use this to estimate your mileage for business reimbursements.

Google Play Sound Search History

If you use the Google Play sound search to identify music, you can see what you've searched for here. Google Play sound search is basically a Google version of Shazam, and if you're subscribing to Google's music library, it makes it easy to revisit a song you identified.

Google Play Ad Preferences 

If you ever wonder why Google makes those strange choices about what ads to serve you, you can check your ad preferences to see what assumptions Google is making about you and what you like or do not like. For example, until I tweaked it, my ad preferences said I liked country music. This is incorrect.

You can also turn targeted ads off if you prefer to just see generic Google ads. (Note: Google doesn't control all the internet ads. You will still get some targeted ads even with this toggled off.)

Voice and Audio Activities

Beyond your My Activity page, you also have your Activity Controls page. That's going to show you very similar information from the My Activities page we've been exploring, with one very interesting exception: Google My Activity> Voice and Audio page.

From here, you can see your Google Now and Google Assistant voice searches. You see them written out in text form, but you can also play the audio back. Google Now typically activates when you say "OK Google" or tap on the microphone icon on your Android or Chrome browser. If you were worried that your devices were secretly spying on you, this may reassure you or confirm your suspicions.

If you click on "details," you can also see why Google was activated and recorded this snippet. Typically it is "by hotword," meaning you said, "Ok Google."

You can also see how accurate Google is in interpreting your requests, whether or not you have a lot of false alarms where the voice search is activating without any search requests, or maybe just how much more tired you sound when you ask Google for the weather in the morning vs. when you ask for directions to a restaurant.

If you share your device with someone else (a tablet or laptop, for example) but you were logged into your account, you may also see someone else's voice searches here. Hopefully, they're family. Consider using two accounts and logging out between sessions if this bothers you. If the idea of having Google recordings at all bothers you, you can also delete them from this screen.

Google uses this history to make Google Now and Google Assistant better recognize your voice, both to find things and to avoid having voice search pop up when you didn't ask for it.

Google Takeout

If you ever want to download your data, you can download just about everything Google saves, including from some long-gone products by going to Google Takeout. Downloading a copy of your data does not mean you have to delete it from Google, but please remember to store what you download securely, as it's no longer protected by Google's privacy settings once you download it.