This Post has been redacted to reflect that Private.me, in only a few hours after our initial reporting, stopped passing the search query in URL referrar. Thank you Private.me for promptly fixing this issue!
In the previous blog we showed how the same businesses that help crown Google as the emperor of the Internet, by giving Google a perpetual license of free and exclusive access to their Analitycs data, are also the same businesses quite unhappy with Google’s “monopoly”.
Today we would like to show how some of Google’s competitors might help Google too, even at the at the expense of their own user’s privacy.
As is well known, when a user clicks a link, the browser passes the URL referral to the site. An important piece of data in the Online Analitycs Industry.
The Analitycs Engine (be it Google, native or some new Analitycs player), can freely use the URL information’s, like sender and arguments. The Analitycs engine can learn a lot about the user, beyond the obvious WHAT is the user interested in, it can learn WHY is the user visiting the web site, through the URL refferar.
So what happens when a user does a search in Microsoft Bing, Dog Pile or some other new competitor? Well, they will also send the URL referrar to the visited search result, URL referrar that most of the time includes the search query of the user.
Should then Google’s competitors be worried by the wide spread usage of Google Analitycs, which is going to catch their URL referrars?
We don’t know if Google uses/learns from that URL refferar, but any competitor should work under that assumption. If that data is used or not by the Google, it is outside of the scope of this discussion. But it could. And that is important to keep in mind.
Let’s give an example. Let’s assume that one of the new contenders to Best Search/Ads engine, like Dog Pile or Microsoft Bing, implements a kick ass feature. Let’s say it is for a new vertical like “flower search”. They put much time, and energy and the end result is a vertical search better than Google. (Vertical Searches are, BTW, the only way a new Search Engine can compete with Google, only in a well defined Vertical Search a new player can outshine in relevance or offer a better user experience than Google.) Back to our point, what will happen next? Well, Google will catch all those (WHY -> WHAT) clicked results in their Google Analitycs Engine. And the Google’s engine might learn from that data and get as good, if not even better.
Good job dear contender, your hard work, energy, time and investment might now train your competitors engines (we don’t know for sure if this really happens, but again, any new Search & Ads player should work under this assumption).
We run a few experiments to see what Search Engines protect their query. These are the URL referrars passed to Facebook.com when clicking a search result in one of these Search Engines, grouped by behavior:
1) Search engines that pass the plain user query in the URL refferar
2) Search engines that do not pass the user query:
3) Search Engines that might pass encrypted user query (they will be available for their own Analitycs solutions, but not to their competitors)
There are a few observations to be made, about Search engines:
A) Private.me, IxQuick.com and DuckDukGo.com score big points for protecting user Privacy and for their paranoia! We love you!
B) A few Search Engines send the user query in plain. While DogPile does not surprises us, it does surprises us the lack of paranoia in Bing
C) Yahoo, even as a skinned Bing, scores big points for having their cake and eating it too, as it seems to pass encrypted user query parameters (and a cookie too), that might be available to Yahoo but not to any competitors, including Google.
Given the competitive nature of the Online Search & Ads space, every advantage counts. Giving up precious information to your competitors should be a big No-No!
So what is the fix? Do not pass a URL referral with plain arguments.
If you are a privacy focused search engine, this will score big points with privacy aware users. The Websites will still know what Search Engines got them visitors, and if websites are interested in the referrar arguments, they might work with your Analitycs Engine after all, if you provide one (:wink :wink Bing), and given the behavior of Yahoo, who knows, maybe Marissa might know something we don’t know.