Browsers & Search Engines Stalk Users
Imagine the browser you use didn’t monitor your web history, that it blocked trackers, blocked advertising, and blocked device fingerprinting. Now imagine you could use a default search engine from that browser which doesn’t show you ads based on your search queries, and blocked location tracking and that your search queries weren’t recorded and tracked by that search engine. Now imagine tailoring your search results based on each unique search query. That last point is exciting, and I’ll return to that in more detail after we look at some of the above issues.
In November of 2019, Brave Software launched a new browser that promised to stop the excessive tracking. The browser now has 25 million active monthly users in just over a year. Below is a quote from Brandon Eich, co-founder and CEO of the company:
Either we all accept the $330 billion ad-tech industry treating us as their products, exploiting our data, piling on more data breaches and privacy scandals, and starving publishers of revenue; or we reject the surveillance economy and replace it with something better that works for everyone.
Brave goes even further, they allow users of their browser to opt-in to receiving ads, and those users are then paid small amounts each time they click from unobtrusive notifications through to view ads in a new browser window. Download Brave Browser
A 2019 Pew Internet research report said:
72% of Americans report feeling that all, almost all or most of what they do online or while using their cellphone is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms or other companies
Last year Google announced in a blog post that it would stop using third-party cookies in their Chrome browser by 2022 and have now committed they would not build alternate methods of tracking users to replace those third-party cookies for advertisers. This move upset advertisers, but Google is responding to consumer concerns they are being tracked too much.
In its blog Google touted a new ad system that gives individuals anonymity online by grouping them together with people who share similar interests, called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC)
The above quote is commentary at Business Insider, explaining the alternative Google tracking scheme. Note though that they are still tracking – just a tiny bit less invasively. This move by Google allows them to say they have stopped using third-party cookies, but they’ll still be watching your web travels to place you in an advertising cohort.
Everything You’ve Ever Searched
Because the top four to five results on any commercial intent search are ads at Google, sometimes you’ve got to actively avoid those ads if you are researching a purchase and want to learn more about a product. Because ads fill the top and bottom of the page and local search results can fill another large portion of the page, sometimes it can be difficult to find and pick informational links instead of e-commerce results. (See below)
Your behavior at search engines is stored by your browser, by advertisers and separately by analytics software after you click through to one of those search results. But it’s not just web browsers and advertisers that use those tracking cookies – nearly every web site tracks how you were referred to their web site (search, direct or referral) and what you did while there, whether you bought anything and which pages you visited. And you’ll still see ads based on your browser history.
We Know Where You Live
Once you’ve left a search engine and clicking one of the results shown, web sites use your IP address to determine (approximately) where you live or work (more accurately, where you use your computer or phone) and most people would be astonished how important your location is to web sites you visit.
For example: financial sites record what they believe to be your “home” location (and computer) and then erect roadblocks when you attempt to log in from other locations or devices. You may have experienced a pop-up warning saying, “We don’t recognize the device you are using, please click the link in the email we just sent to verify your identity”. Most of us are willing to put up with this extra layer of security from financial institutions to safeguard our accounts.
Most of us, however, don’t necessarily expect our location to be monitored by search engines. Perform any search at Google, then scroll to the bottom of the page to view your approximate location. This will be based on where your internet provider appears to be connecting you. (see screen capture above)
If you search for a movie or food or products, Google shows you local theaters, restaurants and stores in your search results. Many of us are also willing to allow this level of location tracking for the purpose of local shopping. However, Google doesn’t stop monitoring your location when you search with non-local intent.
How Do I Avoid Being Tracked?
Many of us aren’t aware we are being tracked and monitored or how to switch to an alternate search engine (if you even know alternates are available). In March of 2019 Google began to offer privacy focused DuckDuckGo in version 73 of the Chrome browser after DuckDuckGo won an auction to be shown as a search option for Chrome users concerned enough to switch to a privacy-centric search engine.
The graph above shows, from a study conducted by DuckDuckGo, the top reasons people list to switch search engines. The #1 reason was “If it had a better quality of results” – which is arguably the reason that Google enjoys around 90% of the search market. Next most popular reason to switch was “If it didn’t collect any personal data about me or my searches”, which fits in with the Pew research showing the concern that our activity is being tracked. The third most mentioned reason to switch was “If it had fewer ads”.
As a marketing professional, a large portion of my searches are done for research purposes and on behalf of clients using their most important search queries. Because around 90% of client search traffic originates from Google, that is where I perform those searches. This activity includes queries which I’d rather not be part of my personal search behavior “cohort”.
For the reasons above, I’ve long used “Incognito” in the Chrome browser. This limits cookies and tracking to some degree, but also keeps search results somewhat “clean” from a rather muddled search history for so many searches done on behalf of widely varied clients. I use the brave browser for my personal use to limit tracking, ads and cookies from all sources – but there are additional frustrations in search engine use.
Now I’ll return to my first sentence (and headline) for the most exciting piece of the Brave Search for me – “Goggles” – the ability to filter and tweak search results. This ability has always been (partially) addressed at Google by allowing “Query Operators” such as intext, intitle, domain or “site” searches. It’s routine for SEO specialists to research using combinations of advanced query operators. However, pre-built filters don’t exist at Google.
Brave announced on March 3 this year that they had just acquired a search engine called “Tailcat” – developed by Cliqz, which will become the Brave search engine and they are now gathering a waitlist for beta testers of Brave Search once they release.
“Goggles” add a layer that allows filtering of search results within Brave search. The concept is fully defined by Brave in their white paper entitled “Democracy Dies in Darkness – and So Does the Web. The paper outlines how the concept of Goggles will work to filter results, based on the Brave index.
Their white paper lays out some of the details of the initial structure of Goggles and emphasize that they will be community maintained, open-source and available to other search engines. However, they claim that Googles will have a dedicated home at Brave Search. They go so far in that paper as to detail some of a proposed “Domain Specific Language” or DSL to indicate how Goggles are constructed.
Some examples of filters include the ability to remove e-commerce sites to see reviews only, or limiting results to specific sites that have been whitelisted. In order to find trusted information on any number of topics, Goggles could be designed that include only a highly curated list of source sites.
The launch of Brave Search will be a welcome alternative and represents a brave assault on Google which is welcome and exciting and should be applauded. Here’s hoping the audience for private search alternatives grows faster than Googles ability to pivot to actual privacy, rather than promising to stop eating third-party cookies.
One item discussed in the Brave Goggles white paper irked me upon initial reading:
Note that full transparency on the ranking (the main ranking algorithm that is) would introduce challenging problems. Intellectual property aside, which is not a small thing, we would further open the search engine to the harmful effects of SEO (search engine optimization). SEO, especially when invasive, is one of the biggest headaches search engines have, giving access to the particularities of the main ranking would immediately result in a boost of those sites that rely on SEO to be on top, which are usually not the ones with the best content.
Because the only mention of SEO by Brave is negative and seems not to allow for any positive motives for SEO. I understand and agree that there are black hat SEOs that inevitably seek to manipulate search engines, rather than improve web site relevancy to valuable search results. But it should also be allowed that there are those of us that work toward improvement of site structure, web site crawl-ability, create useful conversion funnels and improve relevance of client sites rather than to manipulate search engines.
Also – to be clear, Black Hat SEOs are not going to spend time attempting to manipulate Brave Search results until Brave has a substantial market share. That is not imminent. Nobody wants that full transparency of the Brave algorithm in any case. No need to trash all SEOs because there are bad actors.