Google continues to be the most popular search engine by far in the United States, but there appears to be a growing concern over privacy and the amount of personal information Google and other search engines are collecting about users, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The Pew survey, announced March 9, found that 83 percent of the respondents say they use Google's search engine, another reminder of the company's dominance over other alternatives such as Yahoo, Microsoft's Bing and Mozilla's Firefox. There also was overwhelming satisfaction among users with their search engine experience, be it from Google or elsewhere.
However, the survey, conducted in February, also notes a growing unease with how much personal information these engines are collecting about users, either to personalize future search results or to offer more targeted advertising.
About 73 percent of Internet users do not want search engines keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future results because they see it as an invasion of privacy, while 65 percent worried that it would limit what information they would see in future search results and the online information they could get.
Some 68 percent of users don't want targeted advertising because they are uncomfortable with their online behavior being tracked and analyzed, according to the study. Twenty-eight percent said they like targeted advertising because it gives them information about products and issues they're more interested in.
The survey shows that Internet users are increasingly dependent on--and pleased with--search engines for finding information, but that at the same time most have a growing unease with the amount of information these search engines are collecting, according to Kristen Purcell, Pew Internet associate director for research and an author of the report. Ninety-one percent of search engine users said they always or most of the time find the information they're looking for, while 86 percent said they learned something new or important.
"Search engines are increasingly important to people in their navigation of information spaces, but users are generally uncomfortable with the idea of their search histories being used to target information to them," Purcell said in a statement. "A clear majority of searchers say that they feel that search engines keeping track of search history is an invasion of privacy, and they also worry about their search results being limited to what's deemed relevant to them."
This comes at a time when Google and others, such as Facebook and Microsoft, are coming under increasing scrutiny for the amount of personal information they gather about users and what they do with the data. Google in particular has been in the spotlight, which this month instituted changes in its privacy policies. Google in January announced the changes, which essentially allows information about the online behavior of a user on any of Google's services--such as the search engine, YouTube, Gmail and Google+--to be brought together to create a more complete user profile, which advertisers can then use to more accurately target products. Critics claim it's another way for Google to bolster online ad targeting by creating a more complete personal profile of their users.
European Union officials have questioned whether the policy changes violate European laws, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center last month sued the Federal Trade Commission in hopes of compelling regulators to stop Google's changes from going into effect.
According to the Pew survey, only 38 percent of online adults know that there are ways to limit how much of their personal information is collected through Websites, with deleting the Web history, using the privacy settings of sites and changing browser settings as the most popular methods.
"Many people express concerns about targeted search and ads, but most internet users don't have a sense that they can take steps to limit the amount of personal information that is captured and used by search engines and websites," Joanna Brenner, Pew Internet Web coordinator and report co-author, said in a study.