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Google Personal Tab, Dangerous or Awesome?

Have You Seen Google’s New “Personal Tab” Yet?

In any given day, you probably search the internet a dozen times or more.

And you search your files once or twice.

And your emails.

Maybe even your photos, right?

What if all of those searches were in one place—with an easy way to filter which type of results you see?

That’s what Google is aiming for with its latest new feature.

The feature is experimental, and not everybody has access yet. But if Google is your search engine of choice, the option may already be showing up in your search results—even if you didn’t notice it.

At the end of May, Google started rolling out a new search feature called the “Personal tab,” which digs into your photos and emails and offers them as search results (that only you can see).

In terms of the technology, the feature is nothing new. After all, Google already makes all of your emails searchable, but usually only inside of Gmail itself. Now the feature is native to any Google search, as long as you’re logged into your account.

Below I’ll cover what it does and how it affects your privacy—if you can access the tab at all.

Why Can’t I See the Personal Tab?

Google is rolling it out to one batch of users at a time.

Although some users have had the feature for a month, most haven’t seen it at all—and it might stay that way for a while. This could be just to test how people react, or it could be part of a plan to make it universal over the course of several more months.

Even if you do have the feature, however, you might not see it right away; it’s a little hidden. Here’s how to find it:

  • At the top of any Google search, see how you have the option to search News, Images, Videos, etc.? Click the “More” option.
  • If you’re part of the rollout, you will now see Personal on that pulldown and you can click it to check it out. The feature works the same on both mobile and desktop.

If you don’t have it, don’t worry (or breathe a sigh of relief)—you could find it enabled within a few weeks.

Wait, what does Google get out of this?

Aha! You savvy web-user, you. While the Personal tab really can be handy, the magic rule with any tech feature is: follow the money. And in this case, the money trail is pretty clear.

Think about it: how do you currently find files or photos you need?

If it’s email, you might use Gmail’s native search feature, which is already a Google product.

If it’s a file or photo, it depends. There’s a good chance you use a Microsoft device, or Apple, both of which are technically Google’s competitor in some ways. Your internal searches go through them.

And even if you are using Google to search your own files—maybe on an Android device—you don’t see ads in those internal searches, do you?

So there you have it. When you use the Personal tab, you stay on a Google platform (not a competitor) and it’s a version of Google where you’re used to seeing ads. So you won’t object when an add appears next to your own emails or photos as you browse through them.

The more people get used to using this feature, the more ad revenue Google will make and the more brand awareness they get over their top rivals. Pretty clever, Google, pretty clever.

How Does the “Personal Tab” Affect My Privacy?

This is the million-bitcoin question with any new feature. The short answer is: it doesn’t, at least in most cases. Bear in mind that:

  • If you’re seeing something show up in a Personal tab search, it’s information Google already had access to anyway. It’s just being presented in a different format now.
  • In most cases, such as email and photos, Google doesn’t actually access or “read” the content in any way. It just sorts or finds the data algorithmically for you.
  • None of the personal content you’re seeing is available to anyone outside your account.

In other words, your personal files haven’t been added to Google’s web search in any way. No one else can google your photos from their account (unless, of course, you post those photos to the web or something). Google is just taking the existing feature of searching your own content from within specific programs, and putting it in a more accessible place.

There is one big caveat, however: be careful leaving your account logged in!

If you share a device with other people, there’s always been a risk that they could click over to your Gmail and take a look around. In the past, though, that would have required active effort on their part—basically, it means they were snooping. Now, if they just happen to be exploring and trip over the Personal tab, all your private emails and photos will come spilling onto the screen. Again, this is only if you leave yourself logged into Google—but that’s something many of us do these days, so be careful.

And if you do share a device, you might want to make a mental checklist of how to protect yourself every time you’re done using it:

  • Always sign yourself out of Google/Gmail
  • Sign out of Facebook as well, and any other social media you regularly use
  • If you’re just letting a trusted friend use the computer for a one-time occasion, open a Private or Incognito tab for them to browse with. This mode will not recognize your IP and will not be logged into your Google account, even if your regular browser is logged in.

Why did Google roll it out without announcing it?

Google does this all the time. Part of the company’s modus operandi is to experiment with all sorts of new features, usually by testing them on real users. Of course, the company puts them through some internal testing to make sure they work, but there’s no way to see how valuable a search feature really is without finding out how searchers use it. In fact, many of the company’s most famous features, like Gmail, started out as a giant beta test where regular people were invited to try it.

Sometimes Google’s experimental tendencies result in massive fails, like that time they bought a startup called Dodgeball, did nothing with it for two years, and then the founder left and turned it into Foursquare.

Often, however, these little experiments become extremely useful features—or just fun. A few of the hidden features you might want to try out include:

  • Set a timer from your search bar. No need to open up a separate app or reach for your phone: just google “timer 1 hour” or “timer 30 seconds” and the timer you need will appear at the top of the search results.
  • Google Lego. Lego seems to have made partnerships just about everywhere, and Google is no exception. Head to buildwithchrome.com to view a version of Google Maps that looks normal… until you zoom in and find Lego constructions. Sadly, you can no longer add new builds as of January, but you can travel through a landscape of people’s past builds, everything from scrawled sports team messages to Lego versions of entire towns.
  • Flying through space. If you head to google.com/sky, you can leap into the night sky and get a view of any planet or star from earth’s position—or jump over to watch galaxies form. You can also overlay the constellations onto what you’re seeing in “historical mode” for a little extra fun.

Of course, compared to some of these options, the Personal tab looks relatively minor—but it does make itself useful in the right situations.

The Top 3 Uses of Google’s Personal Tab

Even though it’s a tiny change, there is some serious utility to the new feature. After playing around with it a bit, I’ve noticed three moments when it’s particular useful:

  • When you’re deep into something you’re doing. Anytime you hope over to your email there’s a chance of getting distracted, especially if a new message just came in. But if you search for a specific email using the Personal tab, you never leave the browser and you never see your inbox. Nice.
  • When you don’t want to open another app. Sure, wasting 8 seconds while you switch over to the Gmail app is kind of #firstworldproblems, but it’s still annoying. Now you can grab that content without ever entering the app.
  • To find a recent photo. Searching the Personal tab brings up relevant photos in a nice clean grid, and you can often find the image you want at a glance.

The Verdict on the Personal Tab

Basically the Personal tab comes down to a time saver. Is it world-changing? No, it will save you a few seconds if you get in the habit of using it. Not bad.

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