Targeted Advertising Largely Disapproved

Earlier in 2012, the Pew Internet research group conducted a study on search engine users and their perspectives on personal information collection. Entitled Search Engine Use 2012, the study comprised of several questions to determine how participants felt about search engines and other websites collecting personal information and using this data to influence their search results or advertising. The majority of respondents were not in favor of such practices.

According to the study, approximately two-thirds of search engine users disapprove of the collection of information on their searches for the purpose of personalizing their future search results. An equal proportion of all internet users disapprove of being tracked for the purpose of receiving targeted ads.

These findings are important, especially in the context of recent policy debates about privacy, collection of personal information online and the increased use of targeted search and targeted advertising among companies online.

In terms of limiting access to personal information online, 38 percent of internet users say they are aware of ways in which they can limit how much of their personal information is being collected by a website.

Other important findings

The study clearly shows that most search engine users do not want their personal information being collected for targeted searches or advertising purposes. Important findings are summarized below:

  • 65 percent of respondents said it is a bad thing if a search engine collected information about their searches and then used it to rank their future search results, as this may limit the information they receive online and the search results they are able to view.
  • 73 percent would not be okay with a search engine keeping track of searches and using that information to personalize their future search results, as they believed it to be an invasion of privacy.
  • 68 percent were not okay with targeted advertising because they don’t like having their online behavior tracked and analyzed.

A positive side

According to past Pew Internet studies, search engine use is one of the most popular online activities. In January 2002, 52 percent of all Americans said they used search engines. By February 2012, this figure increased to 73 percent of all Americans. It’s clear that the frequency of search engine use has skyrocketed.

Most users report good outcomes and a high confidence in the capabilities of search engines. Here are some significant statistics:

  • 91 percent of search engine users say they find the information they are seeking always, or most of the time.
  • 73 percent of search engine users say most or all the information they find is accurate and trustworthy.
  • 66 percent of search engine users say that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information.
  • 55 percent of search engine users say that in their experience, the quality of search results is improving over time. Just 4 percent say that it is getting worse.

Increasing awareness

One way in which internet users can improve privacy protections is by increasing awareness. For instance, Pew studies have found that most internet users are unaware of how to limit the information that is being collected about them by a website.

Only 38 percent of internet users say they are generally aware of ways they themselves can limit how much of their personal information is collected by a website. Within this group, one common strategy people use to limit personal data collection is to delete their web history: 81 percent  of those why know ways to manage the capture of their data use this method. 75 percent of this group relies on the privacy settings of websites to control what’s being captured about them. 65 percent of this group change their browser settings to limit the information that is actually collected.


This article introduces the Pew Research Center’s study entitled Search Engine Use 2012, which includes information on search engine users and their perceptions on personal data collection, adjusted search results and targeted advertising.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam,  a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Purposes and uses of PII (I.C.c.)
  • Privacy expectations (II.A.)
  • Personalization – end user benefits and privacy concerns (II.C.a.; II.C.b.)

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