Search History

A user’s web and search history plays an integral part in how they navigate the world wide web. Controlled by individual web browsers, the search history works behind the scenes to optimize the browsing experience. Search engines like Google also utilize a form of search history to improve the way information is found.

With that being said, the method of tracking previous web activity is not perfect. The technology has advanced tremendously since the early days of internet browsing, but there are still many negative implications that may arise. It’s important to fully understand what a search history is, how it works, and how to stay protected.

What is a Search History?

Essentially, a user’s search history is a list of pages and queries used to find information. Typically arranged in chronological order, most history lists display information on the most recently visited web pages. It’ll typically provide exact time information about each page. The browser uses this information to improve navigation and make features like the back, forward, and reload buttons available.

How Does It Work?

Information about user’s browsing habits are stored a bit differently based on the particular service. Usually, web browsers store information locally on the hard disk and only provide a partial history. Many browsers only provide information about recent activity for a short period of time.

Thresholds are often used to manipulate the amount of information stored and how far back a user can look into their history. The history can be accessed and searched to find relevant information.

Search engines, on the other hand, handle the information a bit differently. Usually stored on the web, this information seamlessly connects to multiple devices via a connected account. For example, Google records web activity and search queries whenever the user is logged into the service. If they’re not logged in, the information won’t appear on the search history.

The information collected by search engines is generally more detailed and thorough. Some even provide a complete history, allowing users to take a peek at their web activity from years ago. Because the data is stored online, users can view their history from any device with a simple login. The data collected includes a number of details, such as click tracking and frequency of visits. This type of information isn’t accessible by users. Instead, it’s utilized by the service for other purposes.

Why Is It Useful?

The main reason search histories are used is to provide a better browsing experience. It gives the browser a short list of recently visited sites that it can quickly access at a moment’s notice. On the user end, finding recent information doesn’t require a typical search. Recently visited web pages are often displayed and marked with a different color to make differentiating between new and old information easier.

Search engine services utilize it to display recent information quickly. Recent search queries are presented, letting users know what terms to use in their search. Alternatively, it provides quick access to a forgotten link. Instead of going through the entire search process to find the same information, a similar query will bring up the same exact results.

Search engines also use the information for analytics that can be beneficial for the service provider and user. Services like Google keep track of how much time was spent on a particular site and where a user clicked. It also keeps track of what users in a particular area are searching for the most, allowing them to utilize search engine optimization techniques to provide the most relevant information. Basically, the information is used to shape the browsing experience to each user individually. They’ll use this information to display appropriate ads and improve the user’s overall time with the service.

Controlling the Search History

There are many ways to control what information is being recorded. Users can temporarily pause the recording of data to improve security. Furthermore, browsers and search engine services allow users to permanently delete their history. Some services, such as Google, provide users with in-depth tools to control what is being recorded and when. Specific web pages and search queries can be deleted for optimal control.

With that being said, data is being collected from multiple places. To fully control the search history, users need to access archives from the browser, search engine, and the computer itself. This includes the cache and any encrypted data stored on the hard drive. The best way to fully protect valuable data from a search history is to use strong passwords and multiple forms of authentication.

Deleting Search History

When you clear your history, your browser (Chrome, FireFox, Safari, Opera, or Internet explorer) removes your browsing records, such as:

Mobile Browsers

iOS Safari

Chrome for iOS

Desktop Browsers

macOS (Mac OS X)

Windows

Disabling Browsing History

Privacy Mode or Private Browsing or Incognito Mode

Note that private browsing doesn’t offer complete secrecy and privacy but it disables browsing history and the web cache.

Potential Issues

Despite all the positive benefits a search history provides, it’s not without its problems. Security and privacy are one of the leading causes for concern. With a user’s private activity being recorded, it leaves room for security breaches.

Local Privacy

While the data collected by search engines and web browsers isn’t published anywhere, it can be accessed by anyone using the computer. If a machine is shared by multiple users, confidential information is displayed for anyone to see. Because web history is tracked by both the browser and the search engine service being used, there are multiple ways for users to see activity.

Computer Security and Confidential Information

Even if a computer has a sole user, the machine is at the whims of its security measures. One of the easiest ways for others to gain access is by cracking a simple password. Lost or stolen computers can provide unauthorized users to with unjust access to valuable information. Despite superb security precautions, a system is only as strong as its password.

This is especially true when it comes to search engine histories. Because this information is accessible on any device, hackers can gain remote access to an account and view the information. Confidential data is compromised, even if the user has established appropriate security precautions. Hackers can even manipulate history settings to trick users into providing more and more information.