Say goodbye to bookmarks: Google has rolled out a seriously cool search history feature that automatically keeps track of all of your web searches and every page that you view from search results.
The new Google My Search History feature is a beta application launched in Google labs. To use it, you need to have an active Google account (Gmail, Google Groups or Google Answers—registration is free). From that point on, all of your queries and search results are logged by Google.
My Search History differs from the automatic caching feature in the Google Desktop application, which saves copies of web pages you've viewed on your personal computer. My Search History doesn't save web pages; rather, it saves your search behavior, and makes it easy to rediscover both your past queries and the search result pages you've viewed.
"We view this product as a complement to the desktop search," said Marissa Mayer, Director of Consumer Web Products.
Unlike personalization options from Yahoo and Ask Jeeves that are hidden away and have their own interface, Google's My Search History integrates directly into the main Google search and result pages. And you don't have to do anything special, such as explicitly select search results, to make it work.
Using the application is easy. Simply enter your query in a Google search box and click the additional "Search History" button that is installed next to the familiar "Search Web" button. Results are displayed in what Google calls the Main View for your search history.
Results on this view are ordered by date, with your most recent searches appearing at the top. Each of your search queries is displayed as a linked, boldfaced term. To re-run a search, simply click the link. Beneath each search term is a list of results that you viewed from that search, along with the time and number of times you've viewed each page.
A calendar on the right side of the result page allows you to access the searches you did on a particular date. Color on a date box on the calendar shows the number of searches you did on that day. White means zero, and shades of green from lighter to darker indicate heavier usage.
As you build a search history, Google begins to cluster results from related queries together, making it easier to find conceptually similar results even if you can't recall the exact search terms you used. "We're running some interesting clustering and related algorithms to understand whether you've searched for topics like this in the past," said Mayer.
The more search history Google has to work with, the better the related results, at least in theory. "The interesting thing about these products is that it really does take a while to build up enough history to be useful," said Mayer.
My Search History also integrates with Google web search. If relevant results from your history are available for a Google web search, you'll see My Search History results in the "one-box" area at the top of the result page. Google also displays one-box results when it finds relevant links from Google News, shopping, local or desktop search results.
How does Google determine when to display one-box results? If you're running the Google Desktop application, these results from your own computer will override My Search History results. In other cases, it's less clear whether you'll see one-box results or not.
"We're actively tuning our one box triggers to deliver the most relevant results possible," said Mayer, adding that she saw a query that returned four sets of one-box results and she felt that was too many.
Editing Your Search History
To enable My Search History, you need to activate it and start searching. Google has not saved any of your previous queries, so you'll be starting with a clean slate the first time you use the application.
What if you don't want some of your search history saved? Google provides several mechanisms to control what's included in your own history.
A "pause" link displayed at the top of search results serves as a toggle, temporarily halting the recording of your search results until you enable it again. You can also edit your search history, deleting queries and search results that you don't want included.
"I personally think the right way to control what's in your search history is to go in and retroactively remove items that bother you," said Mayer. "That way you don't have to worry about it ahead of time."
Of course, you can also simply sign off and use the standard Google service if you don't want your search activities recorded. You can also delete the service entirely via the My Account settings for your Google account.
Google says it will not disclose the personal information it collects to other companies or individuals, with a few exceptions. Nonetheless, you should read the policy yourself to decide whether you're comfortable with these disclosures.
Google vs. Other Personalized Search Tools
Google has set a new standard for usefulness and ease of use with My Search History. Ask Jeeves and Yahoo introduced personalization features last year, and AOL Search added a nifty search history feature with its recent upgrade. But none are as compelling as My Search History.
Ask Jeeves introduced My Jeeves in September 2004. Danny weighed in with comments about the new service in a blog post, noting that it really amounted to baby steps toward personalization by Ask Jeeves. He also noted that MSN was the first to introduce personal search history in 1999 via Internet Explorer, but this program was quietly withdrawn.
I wrote about My Yahoo Search in the SearchDay article Yahoo Introduces Personal Search, back in October 2004. While I was reasonably impressed with the service, I concluded that it didn't offer compelling reasons to use it unless you were looking for what amounts to an enhanced bookmark utility that's tied to Yahoo search results.
Other services such as A9.com and Eurekster have offered personalized search for some time. We've also got nifty services such as Looksmart's Furl, Onfolio, Nextaris and others that help you to create your own personal archive of web pages and make them searchable.
But all of these are one-step away from being directly integrated with a major search engine. Google's My Search History doesn't replace all of the features these other programs offer—at least not yet. But it is the strongest personal search offering from a major search engine to date, and is something most frequent Google users will want to set up and use on a regular basis.
Don't expect Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, MSN or AOL Search to stand still. Personalized search has long been touted as one of the holy grails for the industry. This year the promise is finally being realized in a way that strikes the appropriate balance between useful results and privacy concerns. Beginning today with Google's launch of My Search History, I expect to see major leaps ahead in the arena of personalized search—and that's a good thing.
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