There has been a lot of movemnet recently regarding how search engines treat the vast amounts of user data they collect.
In early 2007, Google announced it would “anonymize” its user search logs after 18-24 months. Later that year, Google reluctantly decided to add an expiration date to its web cookie, while Ask.com (unsuccessfully) tried to gain market share by giving users almost complete control over whether any data is collected. Earlier this year, under pressure from EU regulators, Google announced it would anonymize its search logs after 9 months. And just last week, Microsoft endorsed the EU’s Article 29 Working Party’s position that search companies should anonymize data retention logs after 6 months, but only if the other major search engines follow suit.
Apparently Yahoo! was listening, and has called the bluff, putting both Microsoft and Google in the hotseat.
Today, Yahoo! announced it will anonymize user log data after 90 days (with limited exceptions for “fraud, security and legal obligations”). More importantly, Yahoo!’s new data retention policy will apply not only to search log data but also page views, page clicks, ad views and ad clicks.
This is significant. The AP has more details:
Under Yahoo’s new policy, the company will strip out portions of users’ IP addresses, alter small tracking files known as ”cookies” and delete other potential personally identifiable information after 90 days in most cases. In cases involving fraud and data security, the company will anonymize the data after six months.
Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo also said it will expand the scope of data that it anonymizes to encompass not only search engine logs, but also page views, page clicks, ad views and ad clicks. That information is used to personalize online content and advertising.
Yahoo will begin implementing the new policy next month and says it will be effective across all the company’s services by mid-2010.
Anne Toth, vice president of policy and head of privacy for Yahoo, said the company is adopting the new policy to build trust with users and differentiate it from its competitors. Yahoo also hopes to take the issue of data retention ”off the table” by showing that Internet companies can regulate themselves, Toth said.
That last point outlines Yahoo!’s primary motivation: build trust, differentiate, take data retention off the table. Ask.com tried to do this, but never had a critical mass in the first place to really make make any waves.
Time will tell how the market will react to this policy change. Hopefully Google will follow suit, as they typically react to any potential threat to market share by simply taking that differentiation “off the table” as well. And if Microsoft ends up buying Yahoo’s search business, they’ll likely be pressured into keeping Yahoo’s new policy in place. So, by the end of the day, perhaps the 3 major search providers will all embrace this new 90-day model. We can only hope.