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Is Google click-tracking regular search results?

One thing I have always liked about Google is that they never futzed around with their search result links. If you clicked a search result, it went right to the URL. No re-route through some Google click-tracking proxy or anything like that. It also meant you could do a simple copy-and-paste of any link in the results without any trouble.

Not so anymore...

Maybe it's been going on longer, but in the past couple weeks I have noticed links in Google search results being routed through a click-tracking server. Now it seems to be happening, for me at least, with all results. Here is an example:

Google search for: lawn mowers

You can check for yourself. Right-click and copy the link location of the regular search results. Instead of the URL shown in green at the end of the result, you get some long Google-based URL that tracks your click.

Why did I not notice this before? Because Google is changing the URL right when you click the link. Not cool. I'm guessing this is to fool browsers that don't allow sites to change the status text. (The status text is the little text in the bottom-left of your browser that says where a link is taking you.) Changing the status text was a long-time way of fooling people into going to sites other than what the link led you to think. Firefox has the ability for sites to change status text turned off by default.

So how is Google going about doing this? They're using a Javascript onmousedown function to change the URL of the link right when you click it. The function they use and the corresponding onmousedown property for a search result is this:

function rwt(el,ct,cd,sg){el.href="/url?sa=t&ct="+escape(ct)+"&cd="+escape(cd)+"&url="+escape(el.href).replace(/\+/g,"%2B")+"&ei=0n8JQ7uTEonoaO3Q-N4O"+sg;el.onmousedown="";return true;}

onmousedown="return rwt(this,'res','1','')"

Google has had a pretty stellar record of "do no evil", but this is pretty shady. It also is downright annoying when trying to copy-and-paste URL's out of search results. Instead of some clear URL for the result, I get a bunch of crap I have to filter and sift through to get the URL I thought I was copying.

The code is pretty self-explanatory, but I even verified it by tabbing my way over to a search result link, then using my right-click keyboard button, got the context menu and copied the link location. Which URL did I get? The one I was expecting, and the one shown on the page. Not Google's click-tracking URL.

To some of you this may be a little thing, but it's to me it's not. It breaks my trust of Google just that much.

Update: There is a Firefox extension called Customize Google that now has support for stripping this click-tracking out of Google search results. I now have it installed and it works beautifully. It does many things, such as add Google Suggest to the regular Google home page, removes ads, includes links to search results from other engines, and more.

Replies

What you're describing isn't happening for me, using the lawnmower search results. Everything I clicked took me right to the simple URL I was expecting -- except the Sears one, which looked like SEARS had added a whole lot of indexing stuff.

I'm using IE 6.0 on Windows XP with SP2, if that makes any difference.
rnewhouse - Aug 22, 2005 @ 1:22 AM - Permanent Link
As I said, it wasn't consistent, which is why I didn't notice until now. For the past couple weeks it was on and off that it happened, and now seems to be happening more and more.
Dylan - Aug 22, 2005 @ 1:29 AM - Permanent Link
some people noticed this about a year ago, but it wasn't really made a big deal out of. The theory is that google uses it for sample search refining, like nelson ratings do, but as far as I know there has been no response by google about it. I would suggest you just clear your cookie if you're feeling too freaked.
tekgo - Aug 22, 2005 @ 1:38 AM - Permanent Link
Interesting that nobody made a big deal out of it. It's a pretty big deal to me, and I'm not even that privacy-centric. I am to some degree, but there are hundreds of thousands way more so than I.

In terms of the cookie-clearing, that didn't seem to change anything. It still occurs.
Dylan - Aug 22, 2005 @ 1:44 AM - Permanent Link
Do you have a google/gmail account?
Because then they keep track of all your searches,
and also of all the links you clicked for those searches,
you know, as a 'service', which I know I didn't subscribe to anyway,
and which you can only 'pause'...
http://www.google.com/searchhistory/
halans - Aug 22, 2005 @ 3:55 AM Last Edited: Aug 22, 2005 @ 3:58 AM - Permanent Link
Yeah, I know I certainly don't remember subscribing to that service either. Yet, even with that service "paused" and all Google-releated cookies deleted, it's still passing click-tracking URL's in the search results. If it were really tied to my Gmail/Google account, you would think that would remove any way of them tying that search to my account.

Then again, they could be using heuristics to determine from my connection fingerprint that it's very likely me that's doing the searching. But if that were true, we have a lot to worry about from Google.
Dylan - Aug 22, 2005 @ 4:06 AM - Permanent Link
I feel like cross-posting my reply to a post about this on tjic.com, because I want people reading on this site to get my take on this too.

----

The privacy issue around this is not what sparked me to write the post on my site (which is what Cory posted [on BoingBoing.net]). What sparked me to write the post was that all of a sudden copy-and-pasting of URL's from Google's search results started breaking. One week you could right-click and copy the link and /just/ get the link. The next, you got some long click-tracking link.

However, after noticing that this simple, expected functionality of Google's search results page was breaking, I looked into why. (Previous to that, I had no reason to do a view-source on a search results page.) What did I find? THe URL-rewriting code.

The fact that I use Gmail means I already have submitted to the fact that Google is going to have my info and be able to track my search histories. However, it was not clear this was going on previous to this.

As far as I have been able to determine, this activity is NOT tied to my Google/Gmail account, for which there was a privacy policy. Clearing all cookies and turning off all "search history/personalized searches" settings in my account seems to have zero effect. And yet, on the home page of Google, where searches are starting, there is no link to a privacy policy that you are agreeing to before doing a Google search.

So I think Cory's, and my own, concern about this is pretty valid. I keep up to date pretty well on much of the tech industry and I never saw anything about this before, and only found out through random chance. And when you come down to it, it just seems "un-Google-like" for them to do this kind of thing, you know?
Dylan - Aug 22, 2005 @ 5:24 AM - Permanent Link
And yet, on the home page of Google, where searches are starting, there is no link to a privacy policy that you are agreeing to before doing a Google search.


I see one...Privacy Policy

Specifically the last bullet under Information Gathering:

We may share aggregated information with others. Examples of this include the number of users who searched for "Mars Rover" or how many users clicked on a particular advertisement.
BlameFrance - Aug 22, 2005 @ 10:08 AM - Permanent Link
You're right. The privacy policy is there, though as tjic repplied to me on his site, it could be brought more to the fore. I'm not going to try to inflame this into a big Google is Evil thread, as the evidence isn't there.

However, it seems as if they could implement a better way of doing this. Say, use AJAX and post the click data to the server in the background, meanwhile leaving the href="" attribute alone so as not to break the expected functionality of copying a URL from the search results. I do stand by my comment that the whole thing just feels un-Google-like. Google usually has a better reputation of not convoluting their search interface and keeping it simple.
Dylan - Aug 22, 2005 @ 10:29 AM - Permanent Link
Cool. Dave got an e-mail from Philipp of the Google Blogoscoped site back in February about this. From that e-mail...

Google sometimes tracks clicks. They don’t always do it, only for smaller experimental groups. Still, a small group in relation to Google’s immense traffic should be a large enough sample to be valuable. Could be million of such links per day, I don’t know… I sometimes come across them too. Other search engines used to do this all the time, kind of annoying! (Especially because of visited vs unvisited link colors etc.)

Very good to know! Now I just want to know how to get off their "small experimental group" list. :)

Dylan - Aug 22, 2005 @ 10:36 AM - Permanent Link
If you figure that out, let us know. I'm on that list, too.
dcormier - Aug 22, 2005 @ 5:29 PM - Permanent Link
DataBind() - Aug 23, 2005 @ 10:28 AM - Permanent Link
Check out http://www.google-watch.org/

Google is not the "do no evil" company it would have everyone believe.
bloggger - Sep 2, 2005 @ 5:22 PM Last Edited: Sep 2, 2005 @ 6:31 PM - Permanent Link
Google is just this company, you know?
DataBind() - Sep 2, 2005 @ 11:18 PM - Permanent Link
It's easy to block Google and Yahoo click tracking. Download Foxy from http://www.2-power-n.com/ and make sure its Search Engine Filter is enabled. It also strips "sponsored links".
Bombur - Oct 13, 2005 @ 3:58 PM - Permanent Link
Cool. Good to know it does Yahoo! too. Customize Google just does, well... Google. And according to the Foxy site, it also handles MSN too. Thanks for the heads up, Bombur!
Dylan - Oct 13, 2005 @ 4:07 PM - Permanent Link
I find it very interesting that if you follow the link to the google search for lawn mowers posted in this article, there is absolutely no click tracking. Yet if you go to google's homepage, and search for lawn mowers, the click tracking described is present. (Every single time)

I'm sure that's just bug in google's code. They would never intentionally do something like that.
nouer - Jul 15, 2009 @ 1:46 PM - Permanent Link

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