How do you completely de-personalize Google results?

I asked this question to Twitter the other day but didn't get any answers I hadn't heard before. I'm hoping this post uncovers something new.

A bit of background. Google announced personalized search for everyone way back in 2009. Here's what the relevant part of announcement said then (emphasis added):

Previously, we only offered Personalized Search for signed-in users, and only when they had Web History enabled on their Google Accounts. What we're doing today is expanding Personalized Search so that we can provide it to signed-out users as well. This addition enables us to customize search results for you based upon 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser. It's completely separate from your Google Account and Web History (which are only available to signed-in users). You'll know when we customize results because a "View customizations" link will appear on the top right of the search results page. Clicking the link will let you see how we've customized your results and also let you turn off this type of customization.

Earlier this year Google announced Search, plus your world, which did further personalization via social signals. Again, here's what the relevant part of the announcement said then (emphasis added):

We're also introducing a prominent new toggle on the upper right of the results page where you can see what your search results look like without personal content. With a single click, you can see an unpersonalized view of search results.That means no results from your friends, no private information and no personalization of results based on your Web History.


Here's where I get confused. DuckDuckGo ranks decently well for the query search engine on Google. For the past week, Google Webmaster tools says we rank like this for that search:


One thing I'm trying to figure out is what effect personalization has on these impressions or not. So what I've been trying to do is get to an unpersonalized version, and that's where I keep running into trouble.

For complete unpersonalization, I use Tor. In a fresh Tor browser (no cookies) and of course logged out, I search for search engine and DuckDuckGo always comes up third. I've tried a lot of new identities over Tor, but it is always third. I don't see any 'View Customizations' link as referenced in the 2009 post and there is also no toggle as referenced int he 2012 post (which makes sense since I'm not logged in).

Yet when I ask random people across the world to try it (not on Tor), they usually get us in sixth or seventh place, which is consistent with the ranking data.

I have a number of Google accounts I use for testing personally. One of them is a Google apps account with Web history not enabled for that domain. When I use that account I see us at #3 with the following personal signals listed:


This makes me think that the personalizations bumped up the ranking for me, but I see no way to turn it off. The toggle pictured above isn't there and there is again no 'View Customizations' link.

Thinking this may be a Google Apps issue, I used another non-apps account where it ranks #2:


On this account I have the toggle mentioned in the second post. When I click it (to depersonalize results), it moves from #2 to #3, not #6 or #7.

When Search, plus your world came out there was a workaround going around the Internet saying if you add &pws=0 to the end of a Google search URL, it would turn off personalized results. 

Adding &pws=0 for me right now is having strange effects. If I add it on Tor, it seems to have no effect (stays at #3). If I add it on my Apps account, the same (stays at #3). If I add it to the non-apps account, it stays the same as well (#3), but then if I refresh it a bunch I can see it jump around occasionally from #3 to #7. Refreshing on the other systems (Tor and Google apps) has no effect.

My guess here is that Google is testing #3 vs #7, but it leaves me with some unanswered questions (hence the continued confusion):

  1. Why does it always rank #3 over Tor and not ever jump around on refresh (with &pws=0)?

  2. Does &pws=0 still work and what does it do exactly anyway? 

  3. Is &pws=0 supposed to turn off all personalization or just Search, plus your world? If the latter, is there another parameter that turns off everything?

  4. Does personalized search for everyone still just use cookies or does it also use IP or other info?

  5. How do you turn off personalized results in Google apps when there is no toggle? Is this just a bug?

If anyone has any insight, I'd appreciate it. 

Ultimately I'd love a parameter that turns of all personalization. I'm not alone there.


If you have comments, hit me up on Twitter.
I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get customer growth. More about me.