Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Privacy and Search Behavior

The collection and storage of personal information, both with regard to statistical demographic data and with regard to search history, has been of concern to privacy advocates for some time – but was brought into sharp focus when the government asked for URLs and search data this January. Here is an article on the initial subpoena

This request was part of an attempt to begin enforcement of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, but sets a precedent which could be applied to the enforcement of other laws. In this case, the government did not request personal data, nothing that could link a particular search to a particular individual - but there is nothing really preventing them from doing so, or from search data being requested in a criminal court case. And as tools like Google Desktop, toolbars, and MSN’s Open Platform become more widely used, the degree to which search engines are integrated into people’s personal lives will increase.

Before you dismiss this as irrelevant to you - don’t be so sure pornography laws don’t apply to you – the recent case with photographer Barbara Nitke established that the most conservative communities in the US can determine the standards by which your Website is judged. Are you sure that your online maternity clothing store won’t be considered obscene by a community in Utah, even though you are in New York? But search information could easily be collected in other types of cases by the government – such as national security. Such a possible use was specifically mentioned by the government. Do you sell anything which might be used by terrorists? That’s pretty broad – anything from books to box cutters could qualify.

But in regard to SEO specifically:
The demographic information that helps you find your customers and clients, can also be used against them. As people become increasingly aware of this, they will become more cautious about actively protecting their privacy. They may become more hesitant to reveal personal information or sign up for memberships, wary of efforts to collect information about them, however harmless the intentions. They will clean off cookies and clear caches more often – making data collection and statistical analysis more difficult, The most sophisticated and wealthiest visitors to your site will be the most difficult to track.

In short, being aware of how the law effects search engines can help you understand and keep in touch with the concerns of your customers and clients. You will need to establish yourself as trustworthy, and secure – while at the same time being open enough that search engines can find you. It’s a balancing act.

A lot of people see the ruling regarding the subpoena as a victory for privacy. Google was only required to comply with it partially. However, the judge pointed out, information collected by search engines with regard to web surfing and search behavior is not protected, private information. What he did determine, is that Google’s users had enough of an expectation of privacy that to demand search data would risk their reputation in the eyes of users, so that it placed an undue burden on the company to provide info that was available to the government through other means. This was not a right that was upheld, but a commercial interest. Which is still a good thing, but not quite the same.

A .pdf of the actual ruling his here.


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