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

Google knows a lot about you, and it may be more than you think

Magnifying glass held up to search box on website

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Google logs all of your search history, plain and simple. If you want to use any of Google’s services, such as YouTube, Gmail, and Google Maps, and have those services personalized, you must be signed in with a Google account.

But with ongoing privacy concerns, you should know 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.

What Information Does Google Track?

Once you're signed in to one of your accounts, Google actively tracks 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

Google provides details about all this surveillance in its terms of service, as well as in their privacy policies. While these are dense legal documents, you should give them at least 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 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 into the utilization of cookies to better personalize your browsing experience.

Even if you’re not logged into Google, you’re still making available a plethora of information about you 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 retargeted) ad placement and search relevancy. The data is also made available to people who own sites that are tracking data via Google’s statistics tool, Google Analytics.

These sites won't necessarily be able to drill down and see what neighborhood you’re accessing their site from, but other identifying information, such as device information, browser, time of day, approximate location, time on the site, and 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 photos
  • Information gleaned from the 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, hardware settings, 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 — especially when you interact with ads

One of the effects of Google's tracking is ads that follow you around online

Why Google Wants Your Information

In order for Google to deliver the amazingly detailed and relevant results on which so many people have come to rely, the search engine needs 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 into 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, and others.

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

The Google Activity Settings that users can change and control to protect their privacy.
Screenshot / Jon Fisher 

Cut Everything Off

By far the simplest way to disallow Google from tracking your data is to simply not use any Google services. Alternative search engines are available 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 Google won't track your information, 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 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 a Google account 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.

From your Google Dashboard, you can also 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.

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

Control the Ads Google Shows You

Many users don't know that you can review and control the kinds of ads that Google shows you. Most people 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 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? Start Here

If you're just now learning about how much information Google is tracking, storing, and using, you might be a little overwhelmed as to what to do first.

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 and access you're comfortable giving to Google. 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 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, read the following:

Your Privacy Is Ultimately Up to You 

Even if you're not too 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 your comfort zone for personal privacy.

While you should 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 your own choice.