Google Toolbar 5: Sync Your Settings and Share Your Browsing History

If you sit at more than one computer on a regular basis, and you use some of Google’s toolbar features, you may like a new offering from Google in the newest version of their toolbar.

If you share a computer with one or more people, you may also appreciate having a toolbar that is configured to your preferences rather than one that is shared by multiple users.

This new feature in Google toolbar 5 is synchronization, which allows you to share settings on your Google Toolbar between more than one computer, or personalize the toolbar to your tastes when sharing a computer with someone else.

The new toolbar was announced at the Official Google Blog in Google Toolbar: Take your tools with you.

This version of the toolbar is only presently available for Internet Explorer, and offers a number of other new features, such as the ability to add Google Gadget buttons to your brower, the addition of Google Notebook with an integration of Google bookmarks to the Notebook, and an improved Autofill feature.

According to the Google Toolbar Privacy Notice, many of the optional features of the toolbar require that you be logged into your Google Account for them to work. You are also able to access Web History, Gmail, and Safe Browsing through the new Toolbar.

For Firefox users, there is a Firefox extension that performs a synchronization function, which was described at the Official Google Blog last year in Get in sync. The author of that post was Brian Rakowski. You’ll see his name again, below.

The toolbar incorporates a couple of smart moves by Google in allowing a user to configure a portable toolbar through sychronization, and in providing more useful features in the toolbar.

Synchronization and many of the new toolbar features only work when someone is logged into their Google Account, and a number of the optional features involve the collection of browsing (Web History, PageRank, and Safe Browsing) and annotation (Bookmarks and Notebook) information.

That enables Google to collect even more information about how people use the search engine and how they browse the Web, and associate that information with a specific user.

We’ve seen a good number of patent filings from Google which indicate that user based data is a growing part of how pages may be ranked by the search engine, and which ads may be shown to searchers.

So the new features come at a cost of sharing more information with Google. If you’re concerned about your privacy, you may want to look over Google’s privacy policies.

The synchronization feature is the subject of a couple of Google patent applications that were published last week.

Resolving Conflicts While Synchronizing Configuration Information Among Multiple Clients
Inventors: Brian D. Rakowski, Kristina Holst, Aaron Boodman, Marria S. Nazif, Fritz J. Schneider, Glen Murphy
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20070283049
Publshed December 6, 2007
Filed June 2, 2006

Synchronizing Configuration Information Among Multiple Clients
Inventors: Brian D. Rakowski, Kristina Holst, Aaron Boodman, Marria S. Nazif, Fritz J. Schneider, Glen Murphy
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20070283011
Published December 6, 2007
Filed June 2, 2006

Abstract

A user of multiple client devices (clients) makes application configuration changes on the clients from time to time. The configuration changes are stored in a local event log on each client, as well as in a synchronization server.

When one of the clients connects to the synchronization server, for example when the user logs into the synchronization server while using a respective client, the configuration information in the server and client is synchronized.

Conflicts, if any, in the configuration changes for a respective application are resolved in accordance with a conflict resolution procedure or conflict resolution rules associated with that application.

My interest in synchronization isn’t how it works as much as it is some of the information that Google might collect about people who use the toolbar and syncronization feature. The patent applications do provide a lot of details on subjects like the encryption of certain kinds of data, and how server and client computers interact in this process.

What kind of information might be collected, so that it can be shared from one computer to another, or associated with a specific user on the same computer? Here’s a list from the patent applications:

  • Bookmarks,
  • Passwords,
  • Open tabs,
  • Open windows,
  • Cookies,
  • User history,
  • Data for auto-completion of forms,
  • Address state, and;
  • Layout information.

The claims section of the patent applications tells us that some of the configuration information includes a “browser state.”

[0014]In some embodiments, the configuration information includes a browser state, which includes at least two types of items selected from the group consisting of bookmarks, passwords, open tabs, open windows, cookies, user history, data for auto-completion of forms, and window layout information.

It’s difficult to tell for certain, and it’s not completely clear from the patent filings, but it sounds like it might remember tabs and windows that you’ve left open to specific pages when your close your browser, and then open it up and log into a new computer, or sign into the same computer again after someone else has used it and their own synchronized toolbar.

I haven’t installed the toolbar yet to test that, but it’s probably worth a look.

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13 thoughts on “Google Toolbar 5: Sync Your Settings and Share Your Browsing History”

  1. Nice…as always; it is getting interesting how this is like passing the ball from one hand to the other as far as collection methods, devices or applications and analysis and implementation to others (search, PPC). I think there is a TON of potential end user to be had going forward as you know.

    We do seem to be getting some common themes as far as the types of data sets. The open windows and tabs has me thinking they are looking for latent signals … the non performance-performance metric.

    Anyway, it real late… had to come over and torture myself before falling over. … talk to you in the am monsieur…

    Dave

  2. I think these patents describe Google Browser Sync, that synchronizes Firefox’s settings. Google Toolbar 5 only synchronizes toolbar’s settings (at least, for now).

  3. Hi Ionut,

    I did mention the firefox extension above, and I think that initially you are right. The developer who mentioned the firefox extension at the Official Google Blog was also the lead developer on the patent, which seems more than coincidence (I like when that happens – it shows Google giving an opportunity for someone who worked upon a project to be the one to get to announce that project to the public.)

    But, I think that it’s possible that the patent filings involve both synchronization as a browser extension for Firefox and a part of the toolbar itself in the case of Internet Explorer.

    The concept itself appears to be transitioned from one to the other, with the extension being similar to a proof of concept before its integration into toolbars. I suspect that we may see synchronization integrated into newer versions of the toolbar.

  4. Thanks Dave,

    As Penn and Teller noted last week, much of what they do is about misdirection. It does appear that Google understands that if they want to collect user data, they have to give people a reason to share it with them.

    Firefox already has a feature where, if your browsing session is interrupted, and the application crashes, it will let you open the old session the next time you try to run it. So it remembers browser states without a plugin.

    The toolbar using this function is interesting, and maybe the ability to do this lets them understand browsing in a tabbed and multiple window environment a little better, if they look at the information.

  5. Google’s attempts to penetrate every niche of private online data are getting a bit much imho. If they keep going down this route I’ll switch on TOR. Plus when they try to implement this special form of “browser sniffing” then there will probably a browser plugin to obscure the browser state sooner rather than later. There also huge security implications with synchronizing data as sensitive as passwords, bookmarks etc.

  6. Thanks William. Sounds like someone spelled out my thoughts and used it as a title for their blog post.

    It is possible to make it more difficult for all the data zealots though. But I agree that it’s becoming a fact of life in a more networked world that data is gathered and spread more easily than ever before. Hence it’s all the more important that people are aware of the privacy implications and know what they’re in for if they post their entire biography on social networking sites for instance.

  7. Hi Bill,

    Interesting post. Your response comments are very insightful:

    As Penn and Teller noted last week, much of what they do is about misdirection. It does appear that Google understands that if they want to collect user data, they have to give people a reason to share it with them.

    You may already be aware of this Google news, but here it goes —

    The Google-IBM collaboration on “cloud computing”
    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_52/b4064048925836.htm

    and Google’s Knol project to compete with Wikipedia —
    http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/techbeat/archives/2007/12/googles_knol_no.html

    Any thoughts? Thanks in advance.

  8. Thanks.

    I had read about the Knol project – it was hard to miss today. I hadn’t seen the article on “cloud computing,” but it’s pretty interesting, too.

    The thing I like about the “knols” is that in many ways they are the antithesis of wikipedia. Wikipedia discourages original research, original thought, and expert opinion. Compare this, from Udi Manber’s blog post at the Official Google Blog: Encouraging people to contribute knowledge:

    We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing.

    With this from the wikipedia page on original research:

    Wikipedia is not a venue for publishing, publicizing or promoting original research in any way. No original research, or NOR, is a corollary to two other policies:

    Our original major content policy, neutral point of view (NPOV) encourages editors to add undisputed facts, including unbiased accounts of various people’s views. It has traditionally forbidden editors from inserting their own views into articles, and demands that Wikipedia balance the relative prominence of differing viewpoints based on their prominence in the relevant field.

    In general, the most reliable sources are books, journals and other periodicals published by university presses or reputable publishing houses. As a rule of thumb, the more people engaged in checking facts, analyzing legal issues, and scrutinizing the writing, the more reliable the publication. Material that is self-published, whether on paper or online, is generally not regarded as reliable, but see Wikipedia:Verifiability for exceptions.

    So the “knol” project expects a crowd of experts, each with their own opportunity to express their opinions and original reseach. The wikipedia aims as the wisdom of crowds, with the aim of verifiability over truth:

    The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth. “Verifiable” in this context means that readers should be able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source. Editors should provide a reliable source for quotations and for any material that is challenged or is likely to be challenged, or it may be removed.

    I’ve been wondering how long it would take Google to start something along these lines, especially considering their experiences in South Korea, losing the search battle to naver.com.

    See: Can Google Be Beat? They Already Have Been in South Korea… and The struggles of Google in Korea

  9. Yeah and Jimmy Whales is starting a search engine. Eye for an eye here. But Knol definitely has potential to become more cutting edge judging by it’s policy or mission statement. Something to further and advance knowledge rather than an archive to store the current status quo on a certain debate. Because the latter is what Wikipedia is doing at the moment. There’s nothing wrong with that and by and large they are doing a really good job of it but it’s just an entirely different concept.

  10. It will be interesting to see how well this toolbar integrates with the privacy settings in Windows Vista

    It is a challenge just to install the beta

    Also with Firefox and IE 7 allowing for Search directly from the navigation menu
    the only thing that some Webmasters still need from the toolbar is the pagerank detection

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