Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
See what Google knows about you (google.com)
224 points by nhoss2 on Aug 3, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 94 comments

Google is really leading the pack when it comes to their transparency regarding user data. This plus the Google Dashboard means basically anything Google knows about me is shown at one glance and I can opt out at the click of a button.

They need to link to these preferences from the Dashboard (but I bet they're scared out of their minds that everyone will opt out...)

"Your categories: You have opted out of Google's interest-based advertising. No interest categories are associated with your browser."

To opt-out just go here: http://www.google.com/ads/preferences/html/intl/en/plugin/

I'm curious. Why do you want ads shown to you NOT be targeted?

Unless you're using adblock, you should be seeing a whole bunch of crappy ads for fat-loss solutions, IQ tests, "Which way is this mannequin turning?", etc...

(Disclaimer: I co-founded a company now helping companies target ads. People opting out won't harm me economically, but I'm really trying to understand people's objections).

I'm curious. Why do you want ads shown to you NOT be targeted?

I want unsolicited ads to not be targeted for several reasons:

1) I don't want people to necessarily infer my interests/character based on ads they see when I'm just browsing the web. "Dude, why do you have porn ads all the time when you browse the web?"

2) I don't need to be sold to on a constant basis. Unless I'm in the market for something, I generally would prefer to not be sold to. Selling me something I'm sure to not care about, e.g., IQ tests, are almost the same as no ads. Showing me well-targeted ads are more likely to prove to be a distraction.

3) Privacy. I'd really prefer no one to have information that associates my account with specific information. It's hard to avoid today, but to the extent that I can reduce it, I will.

With that said, solicited ads are fine. If I do a search, x% of the time I'm looking for a product to purchase. I don't mind it then. Many of the websites I read, e.g., Engadget, are almost ad sites in that the content is generally about product for me to buy or use. And Android ads on Engadget are fine. They're not specifically targeted to me, but the demographic of people reading Engadget.

"Google does not associate sensitive interest categories with your ads preferences." So I think we are pretty safe on 1) .

1) Valid 2) You can't opt out of the ads. You're going to see them whether you want to or not. 3) You're opting out of the targeting, not the collection of your data. They will still have your data even if they don't use it for ad targeting.

Every now and then I see a perfectly targeted ad. like the other day I saw one for a chamber music concert a bus ride away. I saw an awesome concert and the venue got an extra sale. If that had been a random IQ test ad, I would have missed an awesome experience.

TL;DR targeting is better for everyone.

Regarding (2) my point was that non-targeted ads are almost the same as the ad not being there. My brain doesn't even process the "shoot the monkey" ad anymore.

Re (3), that sucks. If they're collecting and associating data with your account, but just not displaying the ads, I think that's a problem. Opting out should opt you out of associating data with your account.

Privacy - Normally my interests are more technology-oriented, so I would expect my ads to target computers and technology. However, every year around the holidays and my wife's birthday my browsing takes a more practical turn. If she were to hop on my laptop and notice that all my ads are now for jewelry, it doesn't take a genius to put 2+2 together, and the surprise is ruined. And this is just a benign example of how targeted ads might "leak" undesired information to third parties (imagine some of the more embarrassing things that might be targeted).

Quality - My experience with targeted ads usually involves them lagging behind my purchase or interest. So if I set out to buy a new saw, by the time I start getting ads related to new saws, I have already purchased it. Everybody loses (Advertisers waste money targeting a purchase I already made, and I keep seeing ads for a product I don't need anymore).

Both of these scenarios occurred recently, and I don't really know a good solution to the problem.

The methods used to target ads can be more intrusive than you realize (speaking as a data mining person). I wrote a short piece about it: http://blog.twodeg.net/when-your-data-sings

Great post. You're right that there's a lot of data out there!

Really, two plugs in the same post!!

Yeah sorry if that was obnoxious, I've deleted one.

I look at it the other way around: why would I want ads to be targeted at me? What advantage do I get from that?

I arguably get a small advantage from ads targeted at what I'm currently doing, but the relative impact of what I'm currently doing is decreased (by definition) when the relative impact of who I am is increased.

I don't need to see recruiting ads when I'm looking for computer hardware, and I don't need to see computer hardware ads when I'm looking for a library implementing a particular network protocol.

To clarify: they're not personally targeted. With re-targeting they target a browser that's been to a site but hasn't converted. No company I know of targets based on specific identity.

It's a 3-way deal. I'd like to see fewer ads, without any obnoxious flash/animation. Also, ads that pay publishers more money for their traffic - and help advertisers find markets. The current market is completely broken; obnoxious ads for consumers, no support for good publishers and bad ROI for advertisers.

To clarify: they're not personally targeted. With re-targeting they target a browser that's been to a site but hasn't converted. No company I know of targets based on specific identity.

But what do you mean by "targets based on a specific identity?" Clearly the intent is to target the same person who went to a site but did not convert. That sounds like targeting based on a specific identity to me.

Also, I can name at least two companies that target people (OK, cookie stores) based on specific interests or traits they (OK, their users) are surmised to have: Google and Facebook. These two are very high-profile about it, so I would be surprised if others did not do the same.

They're not targeting individuals; they're targeting traits. That's the difference he's talking about.

As a consumer I'm with you. If google is going to be showing me Ad's anyway... I'd rather they target them for me. It's not like opting out means they don't have giant warehouses of data on me or that they won't show me any ads. I guess I don't see what the potential up-sides are to opting out.

Being introduced to new things you did not know existed.

Unless you're using adblock

Interesting. So here's a poll I just created on that: "are you running AdBlock?"


Well I don't want to be shown ads period, (I use ad block plus) but I think targeted ads are far more annoying than generic ads. I also don't like the Orwellian aspect of targeted ads.

Besides the technicalities, _targeting_ feels like the uncanny valley, it may get personal, but it's not a human doing the selling, like in a real coffee shop or grocery

I use free internet services in exchange to being brainwashed. If I get an option to be brainwashed less efficiently, I take it.

I do not want to be driven by (sometimes subconcious) suggestive methods but by my needs.

If that's the case, used AdBlock. Stopping targeting is just going to drive you with mainstream ads.

I have no problem with targeted ads excepting one. Many of the categories have no product! Lots of software related thingys, but nothing I can look at :( Many of the magazines that I still subscribe to at least have adds that allow me to fantasize about what I could do if I had but the funds...

This is my full list, and none of it is surprising. I'm just glad they don't assume I'm older :-)

  Arts & Entertainment - Movies - Science Fiction & Fantasy Films
  Computers & Electronics 
  Computers & Electronics - Hardware - ... - Chips & Processors
  Computers & Electronics - Hardware - ... - Sound & Video Cards
  Computers & Electronics - Hardware - Laptops 
  Computers & Electronics - Programming 
  Computers & Electronics - Software - Operating Systems - Linux & Unix
  Internet & Telecom - Web Services - Web Hosting & Domain Registration
  Jobs & Education - Education - Vocational & Continuing Education 
  Online Communities - Social Networks 
  Demographics - Age - 25-34
  Demographics - Gender - Male
Honestly I don't know why this level is surprising. I think as the world gets more connected, the community is gonna get a little smaller (in feel, at least), and we're going to become less anonymous. If the bad guys get less anonymous too, and nobody pretends that this stuff is sufficient to definitely identify me, I don't see a problem. Yup, big "ifs."

I'm a 29 years old male, but according to Google I'm a 18-25 years old female.


Google got my gender wrong, too.

Here's my full list:

    Arts & Entertainment - Humor
    Arts & Entertainment - TV & Video - Sci-Fi & Fantasy Shows
    Computers & Electronics - Computer Security
    Computers & Electronics - Programming
    Computers & Electronics - Software - Business & Productivity Software
    Computers & Electronics - Software - Operating Systems - Mac OS
    Pets & Animals - Pets - Cats
    Pets & Animals - Pets - Dogs
    Shopping - Apparel - Casual Apparel - T-Shirts
    Shopping - Apparel - Costumes 
    World Localities - North America - USA - South (USA) - Kentucky
    Demographics - Age - 25-34
    Demographics - Gender - Male
Some interesting points here aside from the incorect gender, as well:

1. I've only had this computer for about 2wks.

2. In that time, I don't recall having consulted Google in any way regarding my dog or my cat, but it knows I have both... kind of disturbing.

3. Apparently one good search for inspiration/ideas about a LEGO minfig costume is enough to get costumes dumped into shopping categories.... but not LEGO.

4. Given that they tend to dump some things into ad preferences after only a casual search (or out of thin air in the case of the dog/cat), I'm surprised the "Programming" category doesn't have a more specific breakdown.

Maybe you should lay off the Victoria Secret searches ;-)

If you don't mind me asking, what were your categories? I am curious why they inferred female vs male.

     Arts & Entertainment - TV & Video - Online Video
     Arts & Entertainment - TV & Video - TV Shows & Programs
     Arts & Entertainment - TV & Video - TV Shows & Programs - TV Comedies
     Computers & Electronics
     Computers & Electronics - Programming
     Computers & Electronics - Programming - C & C++
     Computers & Electronics - Programming - Java
     Computers & Electronics - Software - Internet Software
     Internet & Telecom - Email & Messaging
     Reference - General Reference - Time & Calendars
Also, there was something about articles related to social stuff / basic rights, but I can't see it anymore (weird).

So yeah, maybe it is because I used to watch Friends, Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City :D

I know, I know, especially that last one; I got in the habit because of my wife and for some weird reason, I began liking that show.

I feel for you. My wife watches "Real Housewives" series and I now know way too much about those people. :-)

22 years old, it guessed I was 25-34.

I'm 25, but they think I'm 35-44... Guess I'm "old" before my time!

Exactly the same for me!

Not surprised that they picked up on radio, it's what I do for work and I browse relevant websites a lot, but lower down the list is dogs (don't have one, no interest in them) and geology. It also thinks I live in Scotland when they know I don't based on my browser location. How strange.

You can also modify Yahoo!'s information on your account as well:


I use Noscript and have marked doubleclick as "Untrusted". It just shows "You cannot view or edit interests when you do not have an 'id' cookie. Opt-in to get a cookie."

Yeah, the point is to have a specific cookie, in which it is written you do not want to be tracked.

"Computers & Electronics - Programming - Java"


Python for ever!

This is pretty cool, but it thinks I've quite a bit older than I am. :)

I don't think there's anything wrong with targeted ads - I for one am not opting out!

Funny, they erred on my age the other way. Did it also peg you as "25 - 34"? I wonder if this is some sort of default.

Otherwise, it seems to have accurately tracked what I view in Chrome on this particular computer / boot partition at home. Would not expect it to track stuff at work or when booting to Windows to watch Netflix.

Yes it did. I don't know if that's default, or if it's because most of my relevant content surrounds tech, financials, and intellectual property though. I'll check Chrome when I get home - it might give a better view of who I am.

Me: Male from 35 to 44, no other information:

That's not correct, I am a girl of 25.

Me: Male, 65+

I'm in my late 30s.

They have my interests as Business News & Finance (correct), but no Tech (incorrect), so perhaps the ad system is guessing age & gender from interests?

I don't see any demographic information on that preferences page when I click the link?

I'm female, 26, and it didn't even try to guess. Hehe maybe the programming interests throw it off. (:

On my original look at this, Google had one of my interests as hockey. I've never shown any interest in the sport, nor have any of my friends, so I was confused. Upon reloading the page, "Hockey" was gone, although I had taken a screenshot before, and noticed a number of other preference had been removed, leaving a much better fit of my activities.

Prior to my refresh I had video streamining, photo sharing, and online video as my "interests" despite the fact I don't tend to use my computer for these kinds of things. These are obviously things I might be interested in (25-34 male demograph), but am not particularly. I wonder why they would appear and disappear like this? How often are the preferences updated (hourly? daily? monthly?)

Very strange. Do you share your computer with others?

The change is probably due to caching. If your computer isn't shared, I'd blame Google's classification which isn't always very accurate. Best example: a page of photos of pole dancers was classified as "winter sports" because the secondary navigation linked to relevant content...

Indeed - no, I'm the sole user of the computer, it just seems odd that so many disappeared, I'd almost not believe it if I hadn't taken a screenshot!

Considering Google's expertise with data you'd think they'd have enough NLP know-how to avoid errors like the one you describe - interesting though.

Probably a lack of motivation rather than ability. Also, their current algo is probably "good enough" for most cases.

Yeah - I guess when "good enough" gets you around $25 billion in revenue, it's probably good enough for now...

"No interest categories are associated with your ads preferences so far."

Google has nothing on me, apparently.

At the bottom they state "Your ads preferences only apply in this browser on this computer. They are reset if you delete your browser's cookies."

You probably cleared your cookies already or are using a browser you don't normally use. I'm glad this is cookie based and not tied into the actual logged in Google account.

Fascinating - it got my gender right and age right but I have no clue where it got the categories from - books and web development are probably the only two things that are even in the ballpark. "Online Goodies"? - no clue!

  Arts & Entertainment - Music & Audio - ... - Song Lyrics & Tabs
  Books & Literature
  Internet & Telecom - Web Services - Web Design & Development
  Jobs & Education - Education
  Law & Government
  Online Communities - Online Goodies
  Online Communities - Online Goodies - Skins Themes & Wallpapers
  Demographics - Age - 25-34
  Demographics - Gender - Male

If anyone is interested, I found this existed from a daily newsletter I subscribed to - http://dlewis.net/nik/

Sure the things on the list aren't that bad, but if google can get that much just from you browsing the web they could probably get a lot more. And yeah they are transparent by showing what they know about you and it's one click to opt-out but how would someone even find that page in the first place.

Why use a cookie if you could finally make use of the Do-No-Track header (or however it was called)?

Granted, that's a feature only found in newer browsers, but it could help speed up the adoption of that header.

Anyways, I will continue to just block everything that remotely looks like Google (besides the API, that is. It's disconcerting to see how many websites rely on it to function properly).

Interest are accurate, but they don't have my age, which is very weird knowing I have a public Google profile (Google+ profile now).

Keep in mind that it's based on your current browser's cookies...I checked it at work and it says things like "Fiscal Policy News" and "Colleges and Universities" are among my interests...on my laptop, which I brought to work today, it's "Social Networks", "Soccer" and "Clubs & Nightlife"

With this information, I have to wonder how I ever get mis-appropriate ads on sites (using adsense) these days? There have been some far misses (feminine products) that should easily be eliminated with the information on this page.

Wonder if adverstisers don't use this option?

Hopefully this will reduce the remarketing ads I keep seeing(doubtful). I click 1 link on HN and then usually it's a YC company fills up all the ad units on every page.

Ahh at least it's better then the get rich quick stuff or the 1-Secret Diet Trick ads on Facebook.

very cool

I too have the default appearing 25-34 age but my interests are spot on.

Ghostery + AdBlock, no information about me.

Modified host file, no need to install software and it's multi-browser. No information about me.

How do you keep your host definitions current?

The various AdBlocks and Ghostery all operate on the subscription model.

tell me more about your hosts file.

Here is the one I use:


I had to rename it to see the site the OP linked, and it had no preference nor any personal info. I'll try it on my work computer on which I don't have neither a hosts file or an adblock when I'll get there.

thank you too!

Here's one i've seen linked around a lot, but never used myself: http://www.mvps.org/winhelp2002/hosts.txt

I personally prefer Ghostery because it tells me exactly what was blocked and when.

thank you!

There were some funny choices in mine. Apparently I'm twice my age, love race cars, sports, and reptiles. All wrong.

Nice to see I at least view the ads of a much younger person as they are 35 years off on my demographics.

This is refreshing to see in some ways. I hope Google becomes even better at targeting.

“Firefox can't establish a connection to the server at googleads.g.doubleclick.net.”

Not sure if this is cool, or creepy. Nice that you can opt-out right there though.

They appear to have nothing on me... Only feature on the page is the Opt Out button. Have I missed something?

No idea why they'd have nothing, I am signed in on Google services all the time.

Are you worried that Google knows nothing about you? :)

If Google doesn't know about you, do you really exist?

I was wondering this morning why I had a facebook ad about a music band that I started listening a few weeks ago ONLY at work and ONLY on grooveshark. The band is not that famous to appear randomly in my facebook account so I wonder if this can be linked!

You can also find : http://www.networkadvertising.org/managing/opt_out.asp

Well if you check Facebook at work and go to Grooveshark, they can track you. I think they might even be able to gather some info if you logged out of Facebook but I'm only partially sure of that.

hmm it does not work for me: http://i.imgur.com/SDvIl.png

And my browser's cookies are not disabled.

Does this mean google has nothing on you (and me, I'm getting this message too), or that we just aren't seeing what google has on us?

Do you have AdBlock installed?

yes. Do you think it is because of adblock?

This always results in a redirect loop for me..

have to download a plugin to opt out wtf? they never hear of do-not-track?

My Glimmerblocker proxy tells me that Google's info about me can be summed up in a 1 by 1 pixel transparent image. This makes me happy.

It's transparent but definitely not user friendly. When you opt out it uses a cookie so if your cookies get deleted you need to opt out again. Also, since opting out uses a cookie you must opt out on every browser on every machine you use. Definitely not convenient.

It's buried at the bottom of the page, but they link to the "Keep My Opt-Outs plugin".

Just curious: are you opting out? Why?

How else could it be done?

You'd need some kind of browser extension (aha!) to purposely keep that placeholder cookie set. Then you've just traded one problem for another.

Now, if the browser came with it, and defaulted to on, then we'd really have something to talk about.

On the server side. Associated with your account.

With what account? Google serves on a ton of third party sites (and not just through AdSense, DoubleClick is huge). And that would require you to sign in to Google before you are opted-out, regardless if you were using Google or not. I use an plugin provided by Google to do the same thing, no worries about a cookie disappearing.


An HTTP header.

if it's any help, i use ghostery and disconnect plugins (are they called extensions?) in chrome and that page lists nothing for me. so one way to opt out permanently is to use those.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact