Google Sees Everything You Do: Here's How to Stop That

Ever wonder how much Google knows about you? It's probably a lot!

Magnifying glass held up to search box on website

Google created the world's most popular search engine, and has other enormously popular services to go along with it, like YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, etc. These services are used by many, but it's hard to feel completely comfortable when you think about how your privacy plays a role.

When it comes to your privacy with Google, you might think about how they deal with data storage, search results, and your personal information. Vital concerns about the right to privacy, especially in regards to Google and the amount of information that they track, store, and ultimately use, are becoming increasingly important to many users.

Below are details about the kind of information Google tracks about you, how it uses this information, and what you can do to better protect and safeguard your Google searches.

Google Tracks Your Searches

All of your search history is logged by Google. If you want to use any of Google’s services, and have those services personalized, you must be signed in with a Google account.

Once you're signed in to Google, it actively track the following:

  • What you search for
  • How you search
  • Your search patterns
  • The ads you’re interested in
  • The links you click
  • Images you view
  • Which videos you watch

This is all detailed in Google’s terms of service, as well as their their privacy policies. While these are dense legal documents, it's wise to at least give them a quick look if you are at all concerned about how Google tracks and stores your information.

Does Google Track Search History Even When You're Logged Off?

Every single time you use the internet, traces of your identity are left behind, like IP addresses, MAC addresses, and other unique identifiers. In addition, most web browsers, websites, and applications require you to opt in to the utilization of cookies to to better personalize your browsing experience.

Even if you’re not logged into Google, there's still a plethora of information you’re making available simply by being online. This includes the following:

  • Where you are in the world, geographically
  • Your IP address
  • Information about the Google services you use and how you use them based on your activity patterns
  • What ads you click and where those ads are located
  • What devices you use to access Google services, the internet, and other applications
  • Server information
  • Identifying information gleaned from your use of partner services

All this information is used for targeted (and re-targeted) ad placement and search relevancy. It’s also made available to people who own sites that are tracking data via Google’s statistics tool, Google Analytics.

They won't necessarily be able to drill down and see from what neighborhood you’re accessing their site, but other identifying information — device information, browser, time of day, approximate location, time on the site, what content is being accessed — will be available.

Examples of What Google Collects

Here are a few examples of what Google collects from you:

  • Information that you give to Google, including personal information such as name, email address, phone number, credit card, and photo.
  • Information gleaned from use of Google services, like data usage, personal preferences, emails, photos, videos, browsing history, map searches, and spreadsheets and documents.
  • Information from the device you're using to access Google's services, including hardware model, mobile network information (yes, this includes your phone number), and what operating system you're using.
  • Server log information collated from when you're actively using their services, like search queries, phone information (time and date of calls, types of calls, forwarding numbers, etc.), IP addresses, cookies that are uniquely linked to your web browser or Google account, and device activity information (crashes, what settings are on your hardware, language, etc.).
  • Location information about where you are in the world, including your city, state, neighborhood, and approximate address.
  • A "unique application number" from peripheral services and apps that provides more identifying information to Google when queried.
  • Your Google Search history, which includes personal information found in Google services like YouTube, Google Maps, and Google Images.
  • Your interactions with other sites and services are also tracked, especially when your interact with ads.

See Why Are Ads Following Me Around Online? for more on how this works. 

Why Google Wants Your Information

In order for Google to deliver the amazingly detailed and relevant results that many millions of people have come to rely on, they need a certain amount of really specific data.

For example, if you have a history of searching for videos about training a dog, and you’ve signed into Google (i.e., opted in to sharing your data with Google), Google infers that you'd like to see targeted results about dog training on all the Google services that you use. This might include Gmail, YouTube, web search, images, etc.

Google’s primary purpose in tracking and storing so much information is to deliver more relevant results to you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, growing privacy concerns have motivated many people to carefully monitor their data, including data shared online. 

How to Stop Google From Tracking Your Data

Screenshot of the Google Activity Settings that users can change and control to protect their privacy.

Cut Everything Off

By far the simplest way to disallow your data being tracked by Google is to simply not use any Google services – there are alternative search engines out there that do not track your search history, or collect any of your personal information.

Don't Sign In to Google

If you want to continue using Google without being tracked, you can definitely do so by simply not signing in to your Google account.

This option is somewhat of a double-edged sword, though, because while your information won't be tracked by the company, your search relevancy will decline because Google uses the information it collects about your movements and choices to refine and personalize search results.

Check Your Google Settings

You, as the user, have complete control over what data you choose to share (or not to share) with Google. You can do this for each service you use with Google, from Gmail to YouTube to general search settings.

To control the information Google can gather about you, manage your personal info and privacy from your Google account.

Check Your Google Dashboard

Everyone who has an account at Google has access to what's called Google Dashboard. It's a way to see all your Google activity, settings, and profile information in one convenient place.

It's also in your Google Dashboard that you can see the email(s) Google might have, change passwords, see connected applications and sites, view all accounts, manage active devices, manage your contacts, and much, much more.

There’s also an option to have a reminder sent to you monthly to make sure all your settings are where you want them to be for each individual Google service.

Control Ads Google Shows You

Did you know that you can review and control the kinds of ads that Google shows you? Most users don’t take advantage of this amazing convenience, but it’s very easy to do from your Ad Settings page.

Do Periodic Privacy Checkups

Not sure which Google services are using what information, how much of your personal information is being shared, or what information Google already has gathered on your search habits?

One way to tackle this somewhat overwhelming data is to use Google Privacy Checkup. This simple tool helps you methodically check exactly what is being shared, and where.

For example, you can choose how much information is shared in your Google+ profile, both publicly and privately. You can edit how much information is available if someone clicks on your YouTube user profile. You can opt out of Google using any publicly shared photos in background images, edit any endorsements of products you might have given in the past, keep all your Google subscriptions private, manage your Google Photos settings, and more.

You can also use Privacy Checkup to personalize your Google experience, from how you view directions to how your search results are displayed. You are ultimately in charge of how you experience Google – all the tools are in your hands. 

Overwhelmed? Here’s Where to Start

If this is the first time that you’re learning about how much information Google is actually tracking, storing, and using, you might be a little overwhelmed as to what to do first.

Simply taking the time to educate yourself about what one of the most popular search engines in the world is doing with your online data is a valuable first step.

If you’re looking for a virtual “clean slate”, the best thing to do would simply be to clear your Google Search history completely.

Next, decide how much information you're comfortable with giving Google access to. Do you care if all your searches are tracked as long as you get relevant results? Are you okay with giving Google access to your personal information if you receive more targeted access to what you’re looking for?

Decide what level of access you're comfortable with, and then use the suggestions on this page to update your Google settings accordingly.

How to Protect Your Privacy and Anonymity Online

For more on how to manage your privacy online, and stop your information from being potentially tracked, we invite you to read the following:

Your Privacy Is Ultimately up to You 

Whether or not you’re concerned about the information in your Google searches, profile, and personal dashboards being used to enhance the relevancy of your queries online, it’s always a good idea to make sure that all information shared on any service is within the bounds of personal privacy that you are most comfortable with.

While you should certainly keep the platforms and services you use accountable to a common standard of user privacy, the safety and security of your information online is ultimately up to you to determine.