I’ve switched my primary web search engine from Google to Yahoo—not because Yahoo’s better, but because Google already has enough of my personal information. Let me adjust my tinfoil hat and explain.
All Your Internet Eggs in One Company’s Basket
If you spend as much time online as I do, you can pump a significant amount of personal information into the cloud every day. Think about what percentage of that cloud Google owns. For me, it’s three years of work and personal email in Gmail, years of events in Google Calendar, phone calls and voicemail in Google Voice, documents and spreadsheets in Google Docs, web page viewing habits in Google Reader. To top it all off, Google also has a record of everything I search the web for every day in their logs.
Of all that data input, web search queries can be the most revealing.
You compose email messages, calendar events, and voicemail with natural filters because often you’re sharing them with other people—like the recipients of your messages. On the other hand, web search queries reveal your innermost thoughts and most private troubles, filter-free, because you’re just talking to a machine. You won’t email your pals about your growing toe cheese problem or asking about the best ways to get a quickie divorce, but you might Google those things. Given your email, calendar, and RSS feeds AND your web search queries, Google could build a very complete profile of who you are as a person (and therefore what companies might be interested in advertising to you, among other things).
If the thought makes you uncomfortable, it might be time for you to take a few personal information eggs out of Google’s basket. Truth be told, since I moved to Yahoo Search, I’ve barely missed Google. At this point, the two leading search engines aren’t that far apart when it comes to quality of results and features.
Yahoo’s Search Results Aren’t That Different from Google’s (Give or Take a Little)
After a solid week of searching with Yahoo instead of Google, I’ve found that Y! offers many of the same features Google does and a few good ones Google doesn’t. Also, and nine times out of 10 Yahoo’s results are just as good as Google’s. Let’s take a look. (Naturally, Gina’s talking about the US version of Yahoo here; your experience might well vary down under — Oz ed)
Where Yahoo Wins
While it appears that Yahoo’s mostly just been playing catchup with the big G, it does offer a couple of features that Google doesn’t have or improves upon Google’s version.
Open Shortcuts: As a search keyword junkie, the feature I love best in Yahoo search is its Open Shortcuts system, a way to assign keywords to queries you do often. For example, I often search Lifehacker’s archives, and using Open Shortcuts I can do so using the keyword !lh. I can and have done the same thing using Firefox keyword bookmarks, but the beauty of Yahoo’s solution is that they’re available in any browser, on any computer you use, as long as you’re signed into your Yahoo account.
Playable Music in Results: While it’s not earth-shattering, going from a web search for an artist directly to a Play button in your web browser is super-handy. Yahoo offers playable music in its search results thanks to a partnership with Rhapsody. There’s a limit on how many free songs you can stream per month, and it won’t have every song you search for, but it’s very handy when you just want to sample a band’s big hits in one place.
Search Assist: Google’s got Google Suggest and Yahoo’s got “Search Assist”—that helpful drop-down of words you’re likely to be looking for based on what you’ve typed already. Google Suggest has one thing that Search Assist doesn’t—the number of results each suggestion will yield—but Search Assist offers an “Explore related concepts” area that shows other searches related to the one you’re doing. See what Search Assist came up with for a search on “American Idol Ad” below.
Where Yahoo Fails: With Search Results Still Not Quite as Good
While Open Shortcuts and playable music clips and Search Assist are nice, fact is, you want your search engine to find what you need right away, and preferably put it at the very top of the page. While most of the time, Yahoo’s results mirror Google’s, in my usage so far there have been a few misses.
For example, a search on Yahoo for Things OS X doesn’t turn up the Mac software called Things I was looking for first, but on Google it does.
Google knew I was looking for one of my favourite Mexican restaurants when I searched for Nati’s San Diego and returned the actual restaurant’s web site first, but Yahoo asked if I meant “Nate’s” and returned Nati’s Yelp page first.
A Google search for Dan Choi turned up his interview on the Rachel Maddow show (in which he broke his news) on YouTube first; Yahoo recognised that I was asking about the Dan Choi who’s been all over the news but didn’t return his Maddow interview clip.
That said, Yahoo told me who the winner of the US Biggest Loser was last week (with a photo) more clearly than Google did.
Overall, searching on Yahoo turned up the stuff I needed and I only turned to Google to see the difference when something felt awry for the purposes of this article.
But Back to Being Paranoid: Yahoo Scrubs Their Logs Sooner
The longer a search engine retains the search logs for their users, a more complete profile they have of those people. Coincidentally, Yahoo has the most aggressive search log anonymisation policy of all the big engines in place with a 90-day retention rate, Ars Technica reported last December. Google retains search logs for nine months; Microsoft for 18 months. That means that the data about web searches you do on Yahoo—including what links you clicked, what IP address you searched from, what Yahoo account you were signed into—get scrubbed 90 days after you do them. Google keeps that historical data for three times as long and Microsoft for six times as long. Since Yahoo retains the shortest amount of historical data about your web searches than anyone else, a data leak or subpoena for your search history will turn up less material at Yahoo than at any other major engine.
Don’t get me wrong; I accept the privacy-for-convenience tradeoff. I hand over my personal information to enjoy the data-centric conveniences of the modern world every day. I don’t think one internet company is less or more evil than another; and I already store plenty of personal information at Yahoo (like photographs of my friends and family on Flickr). Still, it’s nice to spread the love around so no one company has a monopoly on 90% of what I do on the web every day.
Does Google have a monopoly on your personal information? Would you consider switching search engines to fragment what you enter where? How else do you cover your internet tracks for privacy’s sake? Let us know in the comments.
Gina Trapani, Lifehacker’s founding editor, likes spreading her internet business across a few companies. Her feature Smarterware appears every week on Lifehacker.