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Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Search Engines Tracking User Behavior

Google’s all about giving you the best search results for any given search query. What it mainly does is analyze what’s online. It can also analyze what people are trying to find. But it doesn’t really know what people are finding.
However, sporadically it also analyzes user behavior.

Sometimes when you get a result list, you don’t get the direct URLs to the target page; you are being redirected via Google’s server. Which means the development teams at Google Inc. can analyze what you chose to be the most worthwhile from the search result. Used rightly, this could be immensely helpful, but it is also putting up an extra-layer between the result listing and the actual result page. (Sometimes even with a noticeable delay.)

Google decided to choose a very unobtrusive approach to this click-tracking, by mostly not tracking at all.
Others, like AltaVista, are less subtle, and they try to hide what they do. Enter any search in AltaVista and move the mouse over the result list URLs. Judging from the status-bar it seems as if they’re directly linking to the other site. However, that’s just scripted trickery — as soon as you click on the link you’ll notice you’re being taken to the AltaVista server again for a split-second. Enough to track down what’s happening (not that it looks like AltaVista is making great use of this feature to enhance their ranking precision).
Yahoo! on the other hand is directing to its own server without any tricks, even though they’re using Google search results.

Another part of tracking user behavior can be done by checking how many people go to the second, third, fourth page of the SERP (Search Engine Result Page). If they’re not satisfied with the result of the top 10, shouldn’t that count against the pages listed in the first top 10? In large numbers, I would say yes.*

*If these techniques are indeed implemented, someone could come up with the idea to build tools that do nothing but click on one’s site to improve ranking. Of course, that should be tracked as well.

Update by Joe Clark

Joe Clark put down the way Google builds the tracking URLs, and here’s a sample:

Google News France

The next in line for Google News is France, being the 8th country added to the list. Google Actualités France is tapping 500 news sources. Or, to put it in French:

“Après de longs mois de tests, la version française de Google News, qui permet de rechercher de l’actualité d’après plus de 500 sources d’information, est enfin en ligne aujourd’hui.”
– Alexandre Habian, enfin lancé officiellement!, 29/07/2003


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