Other handy uses for web history

Let’s talk about Google’s new web history feature for a minute. This is a product that helps personalize your search results and it’s useful for that alone, but I wanted to highlight a couple examples of other ways it can be handy.

Example 1: What was that helpful site? A month ago, my wife was working in Adobe Illustrator and wanted to make an oval vignette effect. We figured out how to do it, and I promptly forgot how we did it. Last night, my wife wanted to do the same effect. Crap. I didn’t even remember the name of the Illustrator feature we used. So I go into web history and did a search for [illustrator]. I sorted by date, and there’s the stuff that we found three weeks ago:

An example of web history

It turns out that Illustrator 9.0 introduced a couple new features: layer clipping masks and opacity masks. By the way, if you reach this page searching for how to make vignettes in Illustrator, this page has a good compare and contrast about layer clipping vs. opacity masks and this page is a good tutorial on opacity masks.

My point is that I knew a keyword that I’d searched for weeks ago, so searching my history for [illustrator] told me that I’d done a bunch of Illustrator searches on April 3rd, and showed me the results that I’d clicked on while doing research the first time. That made it easy to re-discover that “just right” page that had helped me before.

Example 2: What was my timeline of viewing web results? I browse in a particular way in Firefox. When I’m reading an article and a link looks interesting, I open that link in a new tab in the background. That works great, except when I end up with 30 open tabs. Last week I ended up on this site called http://gotads.blogspot.com/. John K has a lot of thoughtful posts and before I knew it, I’d read a few months’ worth of his blog. But I’d forgotten: how did I find his site? Was it from a comment link on Battelle? A blog search? ThreadWatch? I didn’t remember. I’d opened John K’s site in a new tab, so I couldn’t tell where I’d opened it from.

I can hear you now: “Matt, you idiot! Why don’t you have Duplicate Tab installed? Or some other Firefox extension that clones a tab and preserves its history?” Sure, I agree, but at that point it was too late to install an extension. So I used my web history and looked at which things I’d opened most recently. Ah, there it was. I’d noticed the site on Techmeme and then surfed away from Techmeme. The timeline feature of web history is very handy to help you remember how you got to a web page.

Google’s web history feature is useful for personalization (that’s why I enabled it), but it can help in lots of other ways too. It’s a lot like the original Memex paper (which everyone should read):

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. …. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

My session of Illustrator queries and clicks looks a lot like one of those trails of interest to me. I like that much like Google Notebook, Google Web History provides a way to easily get back to research you’ve done before. In the last few days, it’s already helped me a couple times, which is pretty nice.

P.S. If it’s the personalization you’re interested in, Google OS did a prescient post a month before the feature even launched. And Danny did an in-depth write-up after the feature launched.

37 Responses to Other handy uses for web history (Leave a comment)

  1. Matt,

    That’s a cool feature that I didn’t know about.. hey, am I way behind the times, half blind, or is there a new feature in Google searches called ‘note this’ right next to the cache link after a search?

    Now that’s a cool idea, and pretty pertinent to your little problem too.



  2. I am worried about how Google or someone else would use these valuable information and to which extend ? What are the limits ? Will a marketing action see the light from the Web history ?

    Probably or surely yes.
    Please correct me if I am wrong on any of these points and let us know how many Internet or Google users knows that they can turn their web history off.

  3. If you needed the oval vignette effect for illustrator, couldn’t you just search it up in google without dredging through your history?

    I’m not against the personalization of search results, I actually think it is needed, but the direction google is heading with this stuff makes me nervous. Too much free use of the user’s information for my taste. If Google were to detail the use of the collected data clearly and precisely in the terms of service I wouldn’t have a problem with this agenda to get everyone recording their data in big G’s databases. But as it is, it seems a little opportunistic.

  4. Do not user illustrator. Use Inkscape, ovals a a lot easier 😉

  5. I second Elias’ thoughts.

    Frankly, there are some searches I might be embarrased about. Sure it could be turned on and off, but being human, I know some day I might forget about it.

    Aren’t bookmarks a way better tool to use? If a page is so useful, surely one would take a few seconds to bookmark it.

  6. This is a beautiful thing. I rarely use social bookmarking myself, just because of the extra effort involved. With this there is no effort.

    I can also see the benefit of putting this on the computers at my office, just to see where staff have been, and with some indication of how long.

    I do not see this being popular with people who are trying to hide their tracks! Ha!

    It is also amazing that the search feature on top does not just search the titles, but actually the content of the pages I have visited. It pretty much removes the need to have bookmarks or favorites.

    I usually have hundreds of sites in my favorites, that are difficult to search through and require time to organize by categories. This is actually going to change the way I think and work.

    I figure Google is going to find out everything I do and everywhere I go. That’s o.k., you guys are welcome to watch.

    It is amazing that one company, in an area I study extensively (the internet) can come up with new tools faster than I can master and understand the old ones. It is funny how few people read and comment on this blog relative the gains one can have in life from reading it.

    For those of us outside the complex, this is a pretty fricken amazing resource. Thanks Matt, Thanks Goog.

  7. so many new google tools I just loose track.

  8. Hey Matt, if you come again to Dublin I will be glad to give you some advanced Illustrator tips 😀

  9. There´s no way I would Google give so much information about me … you already know enough about me.

  10. Looks like the online version of Apple’s Time Machine 🙂

  11. > There´s no way I would Google give so
    > much information about me … you already
    > know enough about me.

    It’s not so much you giving Google the information — they already have it, theoretically, when you use their tools & you’re logged in — as it’s about whether or not you want Google to *give you* the information. So the only real privacy issue when you opt-in to this feature is that someone who may get hold of your Google Account credentials is now able to know even more about you, added to be able to reading your emails, reading your Google docs and so on. There have been Google cross-site scripting bugs in the past which already exposed parts of a Google Account (like email subjects) to people who would be able to lure you to their website.

    Someone getting hold of your Google Account is more risky with every Google service you use. Whether or not that’s a risk worth taking is up to every user: you get a lot of cool free stuff from Google for using their services. It should be noted that using a greater variety of service makers only puts you into a different risk zone. Say you’re using Yahoo for chat, Hotmail for email, Google for for word processing and Ask for searching. Now when someone gets hold of your Yahoo credentials, it is “only” your chat history that’s affected (for the sake of argument, let’s say Yahoo Messenger keeps a chat history, I don’t know). However, while the damage has been restricted, the overall chance that *any* of the four — Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Ask — contain security vulnerabilities at any time seems to be higher. Example: if you’d have diversified your “search habit” to include AOL, your search history might now already have been public.

  12. Dr. David Klein
    “I can also see the benefit of putting this on the computers at my office, just to see where staff have been, and with some indication of how long.”

    But how? Everyone have to signup to his/her account.
    Do you keep pass of every staff.
    “Privacy” I think is not a good use of this tool.

  13. All is good but I will prefer an option to delete from web history as well. Will that be available? I go to different client machines and do a lot of searches to check competition and so on, which I do not want in my web history (personal reasons). Also I am using google docs, so gmail login is required while doing these searches.

    One option is to have different browsers for different activities (as I mentioned in Hedir.com once). But still Google can simulate a lot based on IP associated with the searches and visits (at visitlab.com, where I served as a consultant, we did such things to stop click frauds).

    Overall with cam phones, Googles and other new techy products we cant expect privacy. Is it good or bad? It is a just a namesake debate, whether it is good or bad you have no choice.

  14. Matt,

    just a fun connotation. Maybe you know that the German word for cellular phone is “handy”, for some unknown reason. So it’s like “Call me on my handy”, or “handy ring tones” and stuff. When glancing at your headline my subconscious reading was: “Other cell phone uses for web history”, which, simply, stunned me. Oh my dear old aunt Google, I thought. 😉

    Btw, I don’t think, that the usage of web history will become very big here. Germans begin to become alert about personal data storage, again.



  15. Hi Matt
    Thanks for it, I have already see it, but your specification note help me a lot.


  16. Do you use a second account for your porn searches?

    But seriously, this information is completely within the reach of a subpoena. There’s nothing in the Bill of Rights about privacy for your Google History. How long before the first subpoena is issued for this? Let’s have a pool.

    With all the laws regulating deletion of e-mail backups now in corporations, I wonder how long until this sort of data is not only retained indefinitely, but is beyond the ability of Google to get rid of.

    Google Desktop does past web page cache searching, and if I understand correctly, it’s kept on your local computer where it belongs.

  17. I know this isn’t your side of the “plex” Matt but I’m curious as to how the search history represents sponsored links (AdWords). I noticed a tab for sponsored links on the history page, will this be for current advertisers only, will the advertisers be charged for clicks from the history page?

  18. Example 1: What was that helpful site?



  19. @Philipp Lenssen
    I don´t have a problem with giving a company a part of my personal data, like E-Mail, Search or Web History. But I have a big problem with giving one company to much data about me. Maybe they are not abusing it today, but what is in 1, 5 or 10 years?

  20. What about using Google web history and the toolbar to spy on someone… I’ve been using mine since it was launched to spy on my girlfriend’s surfing habits.

    I’ve discovered secrets about her sexuality that I never knew about and while it’s a complete invasion of her privacy, I find it kind of exciting to know about her secret desires.

  21. It is a choice, we can turn it off. We can chose to not use Google. Eric says these kinds of things all the time.

    I’d keep your PC secure! It could be very damaging to people if other users of the PC get to see search history so easily.


  22. Duplicate Tab? Huh? What?

    Clicked. Iinstalled. Restarted.

    OMG how the heck have I not known about Duplicate Tab? Thank you.


  23. Google is crossing the line more everyday when it comes to privacy. IMHO these are good reasons to STOP using Google.

  24. dockarl, “Note this” is for Google Notebook. That’s really nice for heavyweight investigation, but takes a little more work. Web history is helpful for lightweight things like “What site was telling me about transparency in Illustrator three weeks ago?”

    Pedro, I would love that. 🙂 I think it would be like showing how to fold a napkin to a three-year-old, but I would try to learn. 🙂

    Here’s my quick (personal) take on privacy and Google.
    My short answer is that from working at Google for the last 7-8 years, I’ve seen firsthand how much Google cares about user privacy. I personally believe that we take more precautions and safeguards than any other major search engine. We also strongly protect users’ privacy outside of Google (e.g. last year when the DOJ tried to get access to users’ queries, and Google was the only company out of 30+ that said “no” and went to court about it — and won). Note also the recent decision Google made to anonymize user queries after 18-24 months; other search engines haven’t really discussed this topic after Google made its decision. Also bear in mind that even if you sign up for a Google Account, you don’t need much more than an email address to sign up; other search engines collect much more info.

    Another thought is that your ISP has a superset of data that Google has, because everything you do passes through your ISP. So your ISP may have much more detailed records about places where you go on the net, plus they have a verified identity with something like a credit card, and they actually know which IPs you’re on. With Google if you clear cookies and turn off your cable modem for a minute or two, you’ll usually get a completely new IP address. Google would have no idea that it’s the same person, but your ISP would still know, because they assigned the new IP address. Many of the questions about privacy I see are interesting because ISPs have more data than Google does, but you rarely see people ask questions about that.

    As an employee who has worked at Google since 2000, I’ve seen how carefully we treat issues of privacy. If you haven’t read my declaration in the DOJ case last year, you can find a link here. Pages 11 & 12 are good reading, for example. So my personal recommendation would be that if privacy is important to you, Google should not be your biggest concern. However, if you feel concerned, don’t use the feature.

    Okay, I’ll stop. 🙂 Eric Ward, glad that you like Duplicate Tab. 🙂

    Shawn S, advertisers wouldn’t be charged again for clicks from the history feature.

    Martin Schwartz, I’d forgotten that “handy” meant something different in German. 🙂

  25. (advertisers wouldn’t be charged again for clicks from the history feature.)

    I didn’t think we would be charged but it sure is nice to know 🙂 that we won’t be.

  26. Cool spam text box on this blog, probally a step up from the visual image entry (I always have trouble reading the warped text in the image. Dont make the math to much harder or I will have trouble with that to, LOL.

    Anyways, I noticed the date and such on the google search. Didnt even know it was there but the first time it was up it helped me know when I had last visited a site.

  27. I’m loving Web History but I think there are a couple more things I still want to see from it:

    * A sidebar formatted history page similar to Firefox’s existing history but with all the smart features of Google’s Web History
    * A bookmarklet/button to Pause and Un-Pause the Web History with ease
    * Website thumbnails: I often forget the name of a site but can spot it from a thumbnail
    * Total number of visits to a particular domain/page, trends for these domains/pages.
    * Offline history with all the search capabilities through Google Desktop.
    * Keywords I have used to reach a domain previously.

  28. It is refreshing having no history and a browser cache that empties when you close it. No thanks to web history, nothing I visit can’t be found by doing a Google search or from a bookmark. Google searches are fun and educational if you are a fan of quality. 😉

  29. Matt – in your last comment response, you said
    “…my declaration in the DOJ case last year, you can find a link here…”
    but did not provide a link. Could you provide that link?


  30. http://www.squarefree.com/extensions/high/ is a firefox extension that will take you to the referrer of the page you’re on, even if you’ve opened the page in a new tab or restarted your browser.

  31. History just saved my butt – I lost all bookmarks for the last 2 months.. I found that I can recreate these by reviewing my history ..kinda salvaged about 60-70% of bookmarks

  32. That’s a pretty neat tool and all…..But, it alters the results pages. I frequently check the position of some of my competitive search terms, and one day found that my most competitive search term had moved up to 3rd position from it’s long held 5th position. Well, needless to say, I was ecstatic to finally be above the fold. My wife searched the same term, low and behold, still in position 5. I have turned off search tracking, but I still have to sign out to view my actual search position in Google.

    So why is it that the results are altered?

    Also, are there any plans(or has it already been implemented) to begin counting unique result page click throughs and basing search results on that data?

  33. Yes, indeed it’s a nice tool by which you can access your search history from any machine no matter where you go. This is good especially people like me who do lots of search and gather all searched site in a doc file.
    I really do appreciate with Google proposing tools and facilities.

  34. Thanks a bunch

  35. I didn’t realize this was part of Google’s offerings. Thanks for including it in your blog. I will give it a try and it gives me another reason to log into my Google account which I have been hesitant to do for privacy reasons.

  36. WTF Matt? I have a google account for adwords, adsense, webmaster console, etc. It took me a moment to realize what those numbers next to the URLs on the SERP were. Ok, I am slow like that. The next thing I wondered was “how the f*ck?”. It took me another moment (yeah, yeah 🙂 ) to figure out that you guys were rewriting outgoing URLs through onmousedown when I was logged in. Help me out here, isn’t that a really bad type of cloaking?
    You are tracking my clicks without any notification? Seriously guys, that is a bit much big brother for my taste!
    I am not saying google is evil, but those things do not help to build trust! On the contrary, they make me very very careful about google cookies and sessions. What other data do you collect? What data COULD you collect? Oh h*ll – a lot. I cannot say I like it.
    I admire the combined technical competence assembled at google, but your PR (Public Relations, not PageRank, damn SEOs 😉 ) is kinda lacking. Come on, you can do better than that!

  37. not sure if its common – but every now and then I use my google web history to find sites i have visited. Although I have noticed this before – it appears that hundreds of searches that I have not completed appear on my account. Is this some sort of spamming tactic?