Google Inc. (GOOG) is experimenting with a new feature that enables the users of its online search engine to see all of their past search requests and results, creating a computer peephole that could prove as embarrassing as it is helpful.
Activating Google's "My Search History" service, unveiled Wednesday afternoon at http://labs.google.com, requires users to create a personal login with a password. Users of Google's e-mail, discussion groups and answer services can simply use their existing log-ins.
The service allows users to decide if they want Google (search) to automatically recognize them without having to log in each time they use the same computer. Those who prefer to log in on each visit can use a link that will appear in the right-hand corner of Google's home page.
Whenever a user is logged in, Google will provide a detailed look at all their past search activity. The service also includes a "pause" feature that prevents it from being displayed in the index.
Users will be able to pinpoint a search conducted on a particular day, using a calendar that's displayed on the history page. The service sometimes will point out a past search result related to a new search request.
Google is hoping the service becomes so valuable that people will use its search engine even more frequently than they already do, giving the company more opportunities to display text-based ads that boost its profits.
"We think there is some value in providing people with visibility into their past activity on Google," said Marissa Mayer, the company's director of consumer Web products.
But privacy rights expert Pam Dixon is worried the service will make it easier for mischief makers, snoops and perhaps even the government to get their hands on a user's entire search history.
"It's really a bad idea," said Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum (search). "If you need to keep track of your past searches, I recommend using a notebook. It would be a lot more private and a lot less risky."
Mountain View-based Google believes the service has adequately addressed privacy concerns, although Mayer conceded people who share a computer might not want to use the service. "This isn't for someone who is particularly sloppy about signing in and signing off," she said. "You have to have very good computer hygiene to use this."
Yahoo Inc. (YHOO), Ask Jeeves Inc. and A9.com, a search engine owned by Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), offer a feature that provides users with a limited look at past search activity. Google's software for searching computer hard drives, introduced last fall, also provides a snapshot of past Web searches.
But Google promises its latest feature will dig deeper than its rivals or even its own desktop search product.
The online service is designed to store years of each individual's search activity, although users can remove selected links from their personal archive at any time.
Because the history feature requires an individual login, it could help Google better understand each user so it can customize its results to reflect a person's specific interests, said industry analyst Charlene Li of Forrester Research (search).
But Li doubts Google's latest feature will have mass appeal. "I don't think this is going to be very important to the average person," Li said. "Most people are kind of paranoid, so they are going to be wondering, 'Why should I give all my information to Google?'"