Unable to keep up with Google's market share, the other big search engines are determined to top its privacy policies.
Last week, Ask.com announced new software that keeps web searches completely anonymous - a first among major search engines - and now Microsoft and Yahoo! have unveiled their own brand-spanking-new privacy principles.
At the same time, Ask and Microsoft are calling on the entire web search and online ad industries to adopt a new set of privacy standards. "We think it's time for an industry-wide dialogue," Peter Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy officer, told Reuters. "The current patchwork of protections and how companies explain them is really confusing to consumers."
Clearly, Ask, Microsoft, and Yahoo! are hoping to take advantage of the recent furor over Google's privacy principles. In ranking the practices of the big name web companies, watch dog Privacy International put Google at the very bottom of the list, and after multiple complaints from privacy advocates, the Federal Trade Commission continues to investigate Google's acquisition of online ad network DoubleClick. It's no coincidence that Microsoft led the call for this FTC probe, citing anti-trust issues as well as privacy concerns.
Over the past month, Google has made its own privacy concessions: The company plans to make user searches anonymous once they've been sitting around for 18 months, and it's introducing new web cookies that expire if users don't return to the site for two years. But the cookie move means close to nothing, and with their latest announcements, Ask, Microsoft, and Yahoo! have made sure they've gone a few steps further than the world's most popular search engine.
Like Google, Microsoft says it will make search data anonymous after 18 months - removing cookie IDs, IP addresses, and other identifiers that tie searches to specific machines. But unlike its Mountain View rival, Redmond has made the move retroactive. Plus, the company plans to introduce Ask-like software on its Live Search service that lets users keep their queries anonymous from the get-go.
Meanwhile, Yahoo! has said it will make its search data anonymous after only 13 months. The privacy race is on.
The other search race isn't much of a race. According to the latest numbers from research firm comScore, Google leads the search market with a 49.5 per cent share. Microsoft is down at 13.2 percent, Ask at 5 per cent, and Yahoo! in the middle at 25.1 per cent.
Isn't Microsoft awaiting approval for its own massive online ad deal? Yes, it is. That would be its proposed $6bn acquisition of aQuantive, a direct DoubleClick rival. But Microsoft has said it's committed to privacy in this market as well. Once it begins serving ads to a network of third-party web sites, the company explains, it won't track user behavior across this network - provided the user opts out.
At the same time, Redmond is joining the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), the coalition of online ad companies dedicated to protecting end-user privacy. DoubleClick is also an NAI member, but that's not the message Microsoft is hoping to deliver.
Speaking of the fight against search engine data collection, Reg reader "The Cube" points the way to a FireFox extension called Track Me Not. Periodically tossing random queries at search sites, it uses massive amounts of useless noise to cut down on their ability to build reliable user profiles. Unless the millions of people start using it, it's little more than a parlor game, but it's great way to thumb your nose at Google. ®