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Google personalises search results even in incognito mode: Study

A recent study by DuckDuckGo — a browser and search engine that claims to respect your privacy — has found out that Google personalises search results even if the users aren’t logged into the browser or are using the private browsing option — ‘incognito mode’.

Personalised results are shown by Google depending on the information that they’ve collected about you from using other Google products as well as your search history — tailored to your interests.

According to the study, although tailored search results are a common factor among Google users, those who think that their results aren’t being customised by Google when searching in incognito mode or logged out of the browser, they’re wrong.

On Sunday, June 24, 2018, at 9 pm ET, DuckDuckGo asked volunteers in USA to search for ‘gun control’, ‘immigration’ and ‘vaccinations’. The volunteers were first asked to perform the searches in private browsing mode while being logged out of Google and then in normal mode, still logged out.

4 Findings from DuckDuckGo study

According to DuckDuckGo, the following things were discovered during their research:

#1 “Most participants saw results unique to them. These discrepancies could not be explained by changes in location, time, by being logged in to Google, or by Google testing algorithm changes to a small subset of users.” – the first finding of the study done by DuckDuckGo.

Google personalises search results even in incognito mode: Study

During the study, 87 people across USA (76 on desktop and 11 on mobile) searched ‘gun control’, ‘immigration’ and ‘vaccination’ on Google — at the same time, logged out and browsing in the private ‘incognito’ mode and in the same order — but all of them didn’t receive the same results.

Out of the 76 people who searched for ‘gun control’ on Google via a PC in incognito mode 62 different sets of search results were seen with 52 participants getting unique results; 57 different results were seen when searching ‘immigration’ with 43 participants receiving unique results; and 73 when searching for ‘vaccinations’ with 70 participants receiving unique results.

When searching in the normal mode, the same set of 76 people saw 58 different sets of search results for ‘gun control’ with 45 of them receiving unique results; 59 different set of results were seen when searching ‘immigration’ with 48 participants receiving unique results, and 73 different sets of results were seen when searching for ‘vaccinations’ with 70 participants receiving unique results.

“With no filter bubble, one would expect to see very little variation of search result pages — nearly everyone would see the same single set of results. That’s not what we found. Instead, most people saw results unique to them,” DuckDuckGo notes in the study.

The study controlled the variations that might occur due to a change in time and location.

Also read: If Google says a website isn’t secure, what does it really mean?

#2 “On the first page of search results, Google included links for some participants that it did not include for others, even when logged out and in private browsing mode.” – the second finding of the study done by DuckDuckGo.

Google personalises search results even in incognito mode: Study

The entire set of 87 people saw 19 different domains when searching for ‘Gun Control’. The same participants also saw 15 different domains when searching for ‘immigration’ and 22 different domains when searching for ‘vaccinations’. All of these searches were made in the private browsing ‘incognito’ mode.

Ideally, one would see the same set of domains at the same time, in the same locations with little or no variation if the search engine is truly not tracking your searches.

#3 “Results within the news and videos infoboxes also varied significantly. Even though people searched at the same time, people were shown different sources, even after accounting for location.” – the third finding of the study done by DuckDuckGo.

Google personalises search results even in incognito mode: Study
DuckDuckGo

The study also found out variations in the search results in the ‘news infobox (top stories)’ as well as ‘videos infobox’ even though they are only three boxes at the top of the results. The following searches were made in the private browsing ‘incognito’ mode.

When searching for ‘gun control’, 3 variations from 5 sources was seen by 75 people out of the 76 people searching via a PC, with the most common variation seen by 69 people in the ‘news infobox’.

When searching for ‘immigration’, 6 variations from 7 sources was seen by all 76 people, with the most common variation seen by 35 people in the ‘news infobox’.

When searching for ‘vaccinations’, 2 variations from 3 sources was seen by 2 out of 76 people. Each of the two saw a different set of results in the ‘news infobox’.

Moving on to ‘videos infobox’ search variation.

When searching for ‘gun control’, 12 variations from 7 sources was seen by 75 people out of the 76 people searching via a PC, with the most common variation seen by 24 people in the ‘videos infobox’.

When searching for ‘immigration’, 6 variations from 6 sources was seen by all 75 out of 76 people, with the most common variation seen by 42 people in the ‘videos infobox’.

Results for ‘vaccinations’ were not shown in the ‘videos infobox’ when searched.

Also read: 9 ways to ensure your privacy is protected on Google Chrome

#4 “Private browsing mode and being logged out of Google offered very little filter bubble protection. These tactics simply do not provide the anonymity most people expect. In fact, it’s simply not possible to use Google search and avoid its filter bubble.” – the fourth finding of the study done by DuckDuckGo.

Google personalises search results even in incognito mode: Study

DuckDuckGo compared people’s private modes to each other and saw that there were twice as many variations when comparing their private mode to normal mode.

The following things were found when searching for ‘gun control’:

  • Average of normal and private browsing mode (same user): 1.03
  • Average of private browsing mode (a random user): 2.89
  • Average of private browsing mode (five closest users): 2.65

The following things were found when searching for ‘immigration’:

  • Average of normal and private browsing mode (same user): 1.38
  • Average of private browsing mode (a random user): 3.28
  • Average of private browsing mode (five closest users): 2.80

The following things were found when searching for ‘vaccinations:

  • Average of normal and private browsing mode (same user): 2.23
  • Average of private browsing mode (a random user): 4.97
  • Average of private browsing mode (five closest users): 4.25

Google personalises search results even in incognito mode: Study

All of the findings by DuckDuckGo suggest that Google doesn’t really stop tracking you no matter what — even if you’re logged out or surfing the web in incognito mode Google tailors your search results. Websites makes use of the device’s IP address and browser fingerprinting to identify the users.

You can find the entire study done by DuckDuckGo here.

Also read: Google tracks your location even when you tell it not to

and How to stop Google from saving your location data and delete it too

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