What does Google Know about You?

What does Google Know about You?

Rumors swirl around the topic of online privacy. Some Internet users wish to be completely anonymous, some don't know who's watching and couldn't care less. Regardless of your desire for privacy, you should have some idea what your potential for exposure might be. If you are an AdSense publisher, this information is crucial to your understanding of how you might make money or possibly get shut down by Google deities.

Start with a Cookie

It all starts with a cookie. Generally, any web site you visit may leave one or more cookies on your computer. The web site may store information such as the time/date of your visit, how long you stayed, what pages you browsed, and even private information. Your login ID and password (for the specific site, not for your computer) may be encoded into the cookie as well. Some sites may even save credit card information, but generally information that sensitive is either stored on the company computer or not stored all.

Some sites are even more sophisticated. The cookie they store contains only a unique identifier; everything else is stored on the company server. Anytime you visit the site, your browser sends the contents of the cookie to the web server. Any activity is recorded in a database on the 'server side' in a file that is associated with your unique identifier. Information accumulates under your identifier. You have no control whatsoever over the disposition of the collected data. It may persist for many years, being transferred to any number of databases for any imaginable purpose. Any information you provide to the site may become part of your file.

You can delete your cookie. You can't delete the information stored at the other end. You can also block cookies through your browser. All browsers support blocking all cookies; some browsers also support blocking cookies from specific domains.

Gratuitous use of the word Google.
Gratuitous use of the word Google.

Should you Block Cookies?

Blocking cookies is a two-edged sword. On one hand you can eliminate many ads by blocking a handful of domains. On the other hand, blocking all cookies will severely limit your browsing experience. Some sites will alert you if they can't leave a cookie. Some sites simply behave erratically without crucial cookie data.

For example, Google.com insists on a cookie before allowing you to configure your Advanced Search settings. Block the Google cookie and you Google will block you from http://www.google.com/advanced_search. Google also requires access to its' cookie when checking your adsense earnings.

You don't have to Visit a Site to get a Cookie

Cookies accumulate faster than you might think. Surf to Yahoo.com. You will receive at least one cookie, but probably three or more. Technically you have just visited more than one site. Each company that places an ad on the Yahoo home page will also leave a cookie. The ads originate from a domain other than Yahoo.com. For example, DoubleClick.net serves ads to Yahoo pages. This company leaves a cookie on your computer when you visit Yahoo.com because your browser is also connecting to DoubleClick.net in order to download the advertisement. Every time you visit any other site that is served by DoubleClick.net, the contents of their cookie is returned to them. Your browser sends it automagically, without your knowledge.

Interestingly enough, Google owns DoubleClick.net.

The Good News

No site can read the cookie left by any other site. Yahoo can't read the Google cookie and DoubleClick.net can't read the Amazon.com cookie. However. there's no restriction on servers sharing information from cookies after that information has been (voluntarily) transferred to them by your browser. Rest assured that advertising aggregators apply information collected from cookies to develop sophisticated selling campaigns.

Connecting the Dots

Anytime you visit a site that publishes AdSense content, Google knows about it. They may know more than you imagine. Given that Google has long since stored a cookie on your computer, Google servers receive that cookie from your browser each time you visit Google.com. They assigned you a unique identifier, which is stored in the cookie and is tied to your Google account (for example, my Google account is my Gmail address and password) if you have one.

Note: If you have not identified yourself to Google, all they have is the unique identifier in your cookie. They may still use that to track your online behavior, but the information gathered will not be tied to your name.

A Simple and Powerful Experiment

Caution: This will delete all your cookies. Make sure you understand the ramifications.

  1. FireFox 3.5.3 under Windows is assumed...
  2. Close your browser and reopen it
  3. Click Tools / Clear Recent History
  4. Under "Time Range to Clear" select Everything
  5. Under Details, uncheck all the options except cookies
  6. Click Clear Now and confirm the operation if prompted.
  7. Close the Clear Recent History window if it's still open. Leave FireFox open.
  8. Browse to Yahoo.com
  9. Click Tools / Options / Privacy / Show Cookies. Note the cookies that have accumulated from browsing to Yahoo.com. You will probably see three or four cookies; one from Yahoo.com and several others from advertisers who published on Yahoo.com

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Comments 13 comments

Hub Llama profile image

Hub Llama 7 years ago from Denver, CO

Nice Hub. Very informative. I especially like the instructions on how to see just how many cookies get laid with a single visit.

I use a Firefox plug-in to allow cookies "temporarily" but others "permanently". Then, every so often when I'm feeling paranoid, or just fed up, I delete all the temporary ones.

nicomp profile image

nicomp 7 years ago from Ohio, USA Author

@Hub Llama: Good suggestion. FireFox is so much more flexible than IE.

The Old Firm profile image

The Old Firm 7 years ago from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand

This one's now on file too. Thanks.

nicomp profile image

nicomp 7 years ago from Ohio, USA Author

@The Old Firm: lol. We are all being tracked. ;)

The Old Firm profile image

The Old Firm 7 years ago from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand

I was for once being serious. I find these hubs of great benefit to me and am filing them for future reference.

Cheers mate,


nicomp profile image

nicomp 7 years ago from Ohio, USA Author

@The Old Firm: Thank you very much for your kind words!

Flightkeeper profile image

Flightkeeper 7 years ago from The East Coast

Google knows more about me than my creditor! Thanks nicomp for showing me how to erase my traces!

cally2 profile image

cally2 7 years ago from Paraparaumu, New Zealand

I have to wonder whether the idea of hiding your traces is obsolete in a Google world. If you want to hide perhaps the way to do it is right out in plain sight. Visit so many varied sites that Google cannot categorise you. For example today I have visited Google, hubpages, red gage, but I have also searched for tramping, skydiving, wine recipes and harmonica music. If you take my interests over a week I don't think that even the mighty Google can identify the sort of person I am. If I keep publishing I will keep adding to their info and perhaps confusing them more. I am a complex human being and I do not fit into an algo-rhythm. Maybe we have to put out so much info that it becomes impssible to use. Publish or perish?

nicomp profile image

nicomp 7 years ago from Ohio, USA Author

@cally2: Hmmmm... Huge volumes of data seem overwhelming to we feeble humans, but computers chow down on it. Data Warehousing thrives on oceans of information (I wrote my Master's thesis on it). There may be an advertiser searching for a very narrow market, and you might be the perfect fit.

cally2 profile image

cally2 7 years ago from Paraparaumu, New Zealand

I am probably a perfect fit for lots of advertisers. However I am also a cantankerous and unpredictable cuss. (As my long suffering wife will confirm :))By becoming all things to all people I become the target of all in general rather than any specifics. And if that doesn't stop corporate knowledge of my life, I do still have my critical faculties. Do I want something or am I just being roped into it by clever advertising? I can usually tell. I don't think that if you are an internet user you can hide your tastes in the old ways. If information overload won't work (and I bow to your superior knowledge) what are the possibilities? Thinking? Independence? Self-awareness? Taking responsibility for oneself? All of the above? Do we even need privacy anymore? Has it ever existed or is it a utopian myth?

jiberish profile image

jiberish 7 years ago from florida

What happened? What forum were you in?

nicomp profile image

nicomp 7 years ago from Ohio, USA Author

I dunno. They don't explain, they just ban.

Turpin 5 years ago

Always delete your cookies

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