Did you know that Google stores a unique identifier in a cookie on your PC, which allows them to track the keywords you search for? They use this information to compile reports, track user habits, and test features. In the future, it is possible they could even sell this information or share it with others. Even worse, Google’s cookie isn’t set to expire until the year 2038, unless you delete it first.
The cookie could also potentially be used to associate your search terms with your Gmail account, and/or to establish a profile of your usage patterns across all Google services. In 2004, when the launch of Gmail raised questions about associating Gmail accounts with search terms, co-founder Larry Page said, “It might be really useful for us to know that information. I’d hate to rule anything like that out.”
Google’s privacy FAQ gives more information about what they say they track.
If you don’t want Google to track your searches, there are several ways to delete cookies. In August, Lifehacker published a VBScript utility that deletes cookies with “Google” in the name. An easier method may be the CookieCuller Firefox extension, which protects and unprotects specific cookies. Or, you could simply use Tools > Options > Privacy in Firefox and set exceptions for specific sites. On my mac mini I use BonEcho (optimized for G4s) and use the automatic “clear private data” option every time I close the browser.
If you’d rather modify the cookie instead of deleting it, check out this solution, which changes the cookie ID to anonymize you.
Another option, if you think spending money solves problems, is to buy G-Zapper, which locates and deletes the Google cookie from your computer. I actually downloaded a trial version of this software for kicks, and found that Google’s cookie had been installed on my laptop since August 2005 — that, after a new disk image was burned onto my computer twice! (I admit, I’m ignorant about managing anything other than my docs folder.) There are plenty of other shareware tools out there too (Nota bene: I don’t know that site, so you may not want to dl anything from there). But for my time and money, I would simply clear the data myself.