Google Tracking Update - Image Search

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 23 March 2012 |

I just wanted to add a quick but important update regarding Google Image Search, and the changes which were made in conjunction with the privacy policy revisions on 1st March 2012 (I discussed the matter initially in Google Privacy - Fuss Over Nothing?).

Well, it seems Google has now U-turned on the idea of disabling functionality for Image Search users who don’t accept cookies. Earlier this week, Image Search once again became fully active for all google.co.uk users – regardless of their cookie policy.


Has Google been handing traffic to Bing on a plate?

I’m left wondering if the ploy was always intended to be a temporary measure, or whether Google hoped to force users to take cookies for Image Search on a permanent basis, but lost too much footfall as a result and quickly aborted the plan.

A short-term, temporary measure would, I’m sure, have an effect on users, and prompt many to accept cookies where previously they’d blocked them. Workplaces in particular would seem likely candidates for revising their cookie policies, although a high proportion of the people actually using employers’ computers would not have the authority or perhaps even the necessary knowledge to unblock Google cookies on the spot. It’s hard to envisage how different users would react and what their decisions would have been.

I, for example, was not prepared to set a cookie exception for google.co.uk, so I instead used the encrypted version of Google’s Image Search, via DuckDuckGo. Before I discovered that option I used Bing for a few days. But many others will have simply typed “www.google.co.uk” into their browser’s exception box, and allowed the search giant to start comprehensively tracking them. Anyone who did that, would be most unlikely to realise when Google reverted back to the previous, all-inclusive setup, and so would not know they could delete their cookie exception. So even when a temporary measure ended, those who reset their browsers would very probably continue to be tracked by Google. The effects of a temporary measure would thus last considerably longer than the measure itself.

Equally, it's believable that Google planned in principle to permanently disable some search functionality for those refusing to be tracked, but the plan rapidly proved itself misguided. The one thing that makes me feel the idea of disabling Image Search’s functionality was misguided, or was at least extremely optimistic, is that generally, people who don’t accept cookies are deliberately blocking them for a specific reason, and will therefore not be 'malleable' in the way a less privacy-focused individual often is.

All the major browsers come with cookies enabled by default. To block cookies, the user has to make a conscious decision, and then endure a considerable amount of incovenience setting up exceptions for sites which can’t be properly used without active cookie transfer. In other words, the kind of person who’s gonna be blocking cookies from google.co.uk, will not just be any old random user who doesn’t know or care about privacy. It’ll be someone who takes privacy seriously and is focused on precisely how websites are trying to track them. In issuing an ultimatum to that person: “Accept our cookies or don’t use our Image Search”, Google would surely be at best scoring an own goal in terms of PR, and at worst, losing a user to Bing or another Image Search provider of choice.

It would be interesting to see how many Google users with selective cookie policies discovered the problem with Google Image Search on or after 1st March, but rather than setting an exception for Google, simply typed “Bing” into the search box and moved on. I get the sense that Bill Gates may very well have been laughing his head off this month, what with all the disgruntled users Google have obligingly sent to his rival search engine. What was perhaps most damaging for Google was that all privacy-focused users would know from longstanding experience that Image Search can function perfectly well without cookies. They’d therefore know that there was no technical reason behind the change. They’d know, in essence, that Google disabled the functionality of Image Search purely to try and force them to be tracked. That’s not a good look for a business which claims to care about users’ privacy.

But I want to thank Google for what it’s done this month. It’s helped me a lot. I’ve begun using new search engines, made lots of new privacy-related discoveries, begun to spread my blogging more widely across non-Google blogging platforms, drastically scaled down my use of Google Chrome in favour of Opera, Firefox and even Flashpeak Slim Browser, deleted my Google + user profile, and generally made a concerted start on becoming less reliant on Google. One small change to Google Image Search and a revised privacy policy, which in the case of this particular user, has, in the course of just three weeks, backfired for Google on a grand scale. But it’s all about choices, and now I feel I have more of them. Thanks for the wake-up call, Google – and I genuinely do mean that.

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