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Web sites get a lot of information from your Google searches, but that doesn't mean that web sites can monitor every Google search you do.

A friend who runs a website told me that he can see all the Google searches of everyone who visits. Of course, he can only see the Google searches by IP address ... but if you register on his site, he knows your IP address and can then tell ALL of your Google searches. Is this true? I know Google can track Google searches by IP address, but I didn't know that people who own websites can do this.

Yes, no and maybe.

Once again it seems like I'm not being very helpful, but it really depends on exactly what you, and your friend, mean. Websites can, in fact, tell a lot of search related things - I do it myself here on Ask Leo! - but certainly not everything.

Let's look at what a website can see....

When you search for something on any search engine, not just Google, the search engine of course knows what words you were looking for when it shows you results. When you click on one of the search results, the following information is sent to the website that you're going to:

  • The search engine URL (i.e. google.com)

  • The keywords you had just searched on.

  • Your IP address. Any time you visit any web page, your IP address is known to the web server.

So, for example, let's say you go to Google and search for "lsass.exe". One of the links in the results at this writing is to a page on my site, What are "LSASS", "LSASS.EXE" and "Sasser" and how do I know if I'm infected? What do I do if I am? If you click on that link and go to that page on my site, my web server will also know that a) you came via Google, b) at Google you searched for "lsass.exe", and your IP address is whatever your IP address is.

"... a web server cannot track all your searches - only those that actually lead you to a website on that web server."

Not all web sites pay attention to this information, but it's made available to all. I happen to track popular search words that lead people to my site, so that I know what people are looking for, and what kind of searches are bringing people to my site. I know what you were searching for, but only if you actually come to my site as a result of that search.

If you do not come to my site, I have no way of knowing what you were looking for. So no, a web server cannot track all your searches - only those that actually lead you to a website on that web server.

Now, there is another type of search tracking that a website can do, and that is track the searches you make while you're on the site. For example, in the upper right of this page you should see a Google search box. My web server does record what terms you enter there and search for. That's true for any search box on any web site, regardless of whether it's Google, MSN, or some kind of internal or custom search. But the web server can only track the searches you make from the websites hosted on that server. If you're on some other search site, search for something, and then go to some other site, none of that will be available to any of the other sites you may have visited in the past. So if you're on my site, go to google.com, search for flowers, and end up on Flowers Fast .com, there's no way for my web server to know - you left it when you went to google.com.

Important: there's one really big exception to everything I've just written. Spyware. If you have spyware on your machine, all bets are off. While the websites you visit may not be tracking what you're searching on, someone else may. That's one of the many reasons that making sure you're running a good anti-spyware solution is so important.

Article C2703 - June 25, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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