Google is everywhere on the internet. We use Google to complete web searches. YouTube is our favorite destination for videos that are distracting and educational alike. Chrome is many people’s favorite browser, and Android is many people’s favorite mobile operating system. Google’s infrastructure underlies millions of popular websites worldwide. And over the years, Google has amassed a huge amount of information about what we search, what we read, the websites we visit, and even the locations we frequent.
There are some undeniably great things about Google. (Need an example? We’re big fans of the Google Pixel and the new Google Assistant.) But Google’s world domination also has some not-so-great effects for the average internet user. Ahead, you can check out some ways that Google’s ubiquity online is annoying, or even creepy. You may never look at the Google homepage the same way again.
1. Google tracks everything you do online
2. Most people are monitored by Google — and don’t know it
Robert Epstein of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology wrote for U.S. News several years ago that Google monitors “perhaps upwards of 90 percent of internet users worldwide — whether they use a Google product or not, and most people have no idea they’re being monitored.” Google’s tracking activities are extensive. And they’re enabled not only by the company’s search engine, its Chrome browser, and its Android operating system, but also by products like Google Analytics, Google AdSense, and Google AdWords. All of the information Google collects over time enables the company to build a detailed file on your interests, preferences, beliefs, and problems.
3. Google may not know your name (at first) but will figure it out
Epstein also reports even if Google doesn’t know your name, it can still track your searches with codes, like your IP address, that are unique to your computer or to your specific location. And Google installs an identifier cookie on your computer that makes you easier to track. “Through cross-referencing, the company can eventually find your name, address, and telephone number, too.” As Jeffrey Rosen reported for the New York Times a few years ago, real privacy threats arise when Google and advertisers know who you are. “Computers can link our digital profiles with our real identities so precisely that it will soon be hard to claim that the profiles are anonymous in any meaningful sense.” If Google collects enough information on you, it’s likely to discover information that could lead to harm if it were revealed.
4. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to use email without being tracked by Google
If you use Gmail, it’s a given that Google will track all of your messages. It will scan the messages you send, the addresses of the people you’re emailing, plus your incoming messages. Additionally, it doesn’t ever erase its copies of messages you sent, drafts you decided not to send, and incomplete messages you didn’t even save as a draft. But because Google’s servers are used to route the emails of thousands of other companies, many emails that aren’t even sent from or to a Gmail address are scanned by Google. Which means that if you’re using email — any kind of email — chances are good Google is watching you.
5. Google dominates not only as a search engine, but as part of the infrastructure of countless websites
More than half of the world’s most popular websites use Google Analytics to collect information about their visitors. Millions of website owners use Google AdSense to try to monetize their sites. And many even use Google AdWords to scatter ads throughout text-based content. Google often gets information on you when you simply load a page containing such software. That’s one of the creepiest consequences of Google’s world domination. Even if you aren’t using any Google products directly, the company’s software is ubiquitous enough that it’s still able to track everything you do.
6. Google knows what you’re reading and doing online
In case you hadn’t realized it yet, Google is paying close attention to the websites you visit and the publications you read when you’re online. For that reason, there are plenty of things you should never search on Google — at least if you don’t want to reveal some pretty personal information to Google and to the scores of companies who advertise with Google. Googling queries about medical issues or drugs, for instance, can make it easy for advertisers to figure out if you have specific health issues (which has some pretty creepy implications).
7. Other companies’ browsers tell Google what websites you’re visiting
You’d think if you aren’t using Google’s search engine to find a website and you’re not using Google Chrome, then Google can’t spy on what websites you’re visiting, right? Wrong. Epstein reports other companies’ browsers, including Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari, use a Google blacklist to check whether the site you’re visiting is dangerous. That doesn’t sound so bad. After all, it sounds harmless to check the safety of the websites you’re navigating to. But in the process, those browsers are telling Google what websites you’re visiting.
8. Google even knows information you wouldn’t share with other people
A disconcerting side effect of Google’s world domination? The company probably knows some information about you that you wouldn’t readily share with other people. For instance, you might find it disconcerting to learn that Google probably knew how you were voting in the recent presidential election. Contrary to what you might find on Facebook, not everybody wants to share their political views with the world. So it’s at least a little bit creepy that a giant search engine could easily have that information.
9. Google has even more information about you if you’re an Android user
Google probably wants everybody to have an Android phone. That probably doesn’t sound bad if you’re already a fan of Android. (Though it might make for a pretty boring smartphone landscape.) But using an Android phone or tablet opens you up to even more tracking by Google — something you might not think about when you’re comparing your options at Best Buy or at your carrier’s store. Of particular interest on Android is the operating system’s ability to track your location. Even its backup utility is cause for concern, as it gives Google access to a lot more information about you than you might assume.
10. Trying to delete yourself from the internet? You’ll need a Google account
This one isn’t technically Google’s fault, but it’s definitely a strange result of Google’s world domination. The internet collectively raised its hands in praise upon the arrival of Swedish website Deseat.me, which helps you clean up your internet presence or remove yourself almost entirely from the internet. But you’ll need to use your Google account to bring up your online and social media accounts.
11. You can replace most Google services — with the exception of YouTube
Joshua J. Romero reported years ago for IEEE Spectrum that he embarked on a “quest to quit the most pervasive company on the web” and find alternatives to the Google services he had been using. As you might imagine, there are competing alternatives for almost all of Google’s apps, services, and platforms. But there’s one notable exception: YouTube. As Romero explained, “There was one Google service that I found I could just not live without, no matter how hard I tried: YouTube.” He continues, “It’s easy to take YouTube for granted because it’s been hyped in the press for years. There are other video sites, of course, but the depth, breadth, and ubiquity of YouTube became conspicuous every time I watched another video.”
12. It takes some pretty major steps to stop Google from tracking you
If you want to delve into the settings for your Google account, there are plenty of small steps that you can take to control the search engine giant’s access to information about you and your activity. But as Zach Epstein reports for BGR, the best way to get Google to stop tracking you is to use a VPN. Using a VPN isn’t hard, and it doesn’t need to be expensive. (A VPN, for those of you who are unfamiliar, just routes your web traffic through a third party server in order to protect your identity and your information.) VPNs are usually pretty easy to set up and to use. But it’s still pretty disheartening that Google’s tracking is pervasive enough to make a VPN a necessity for avoiding it.