How to Clear or Hide Your Search and Browsing History

Need to clear your Google search history to keep your searches away from prying eyes? Or searching for something that you know would get you in trouble if someone found out? Well this article will help you avoid being caught! This article has been updated since it was first written in 2007 with a whole slew of new information up to late 2014. Previously, I simply wrote that you could clear out the search toolbar in your browser and also clear your browser history and you were good to go.

Unfortunately, those days are gone. Most browsers now just have an omnibox that combines the address bar with the search bar. To truly clear your search history requires understand the depth to which you are being tracked online by not only software, but by companies and other third-party entities. Going a step further, if you really want to hide your search history from prying eyes requires even more work and setup, a lot of which most people simply find too cumbersome or tedious.

Clearing your Google search history is thankfully still a mostly straight-forward procedure. To start, when you perform a search in your browser, the search will be saved in multiple locations. The first is in the local browser history. So if you’re using Chrome, you click on the Settings button and click on History and you’ll see your history whether or not you’re logged into Google or not. If you use Internet Explorer and open the History toolbar, you’ll see all the sites you have visited in the last 20 days, since that is the default number of days IE keeps history.

The people who probably have their search history most recorded are the ones using Chrome and who are signed into Google all the time. Since most people already perform their searches using Google, you can bet everything you are doing is being tracked if you’re using Chrome or a Chromebook or an Android phone that requires you to constantly be logged into your Google account. Luckily, you can go through and view all of that history and either selectively delete it or delete everything.

Another option which has come about more recently is using your browser in private or incognito mode. These modes basically don’t track anything locally on your computer, but you still have to worry about your searches being recorded online.

Lastly, if you want to hide your searching as much as possible, we’ll also talk about using tools like the Tor browser and a VPN. Using these tools, you can make online searching as anonymous and encrypted as is possible unless you’re someone like Edward Snowden!

First up, let’s start with simply getting rid of your LOCAL browser history. That’s very bold because even when clearing local history, your searches and visited sites might be also recorded in your online history, which we’ll talk about later. I won’t explain the steps for every browser as you can easily perform a Google search for deleting browser history. I’ll mention IE and Chrome since I use those the most, but the steps are pretty similar for Firefox and Safari.

Clear IE Local Search History

Depending on your version of IE, you can either go to Tools and click on Delete Browsing History or you can click on the little gear icon at the top right, choose Internet Options and then click on Delete under the Browsing history section.

delete browsing history ie

internet options ie

ie options general tab

In the Delete Browsing History dialog, check the boxes to delete the data you want to remove. Checking History would be a good idea along with Form Data and Temporary Internet Files and Cookies and website data. This will delete everything that you typed into any form on any web page, including the Google search box.

delete browsing history

You can also change other settings in IE for better protection like deleting browser history when exiting the browser and deleting the AutoComplete history under the Content tab. AutoComplete history is what gets saved when you type something into the address bar in IE.

delete autocomplete history

Clear Google Chrome Local History

In Chrome, to clear the local browsing history stored on the computer, click on the icon with the three lines at the top right and click on History.

chrome history

Here you’ll see all the local history of web searches and pages visited. If you performed searches on another computer using Chrome, those won’t show up here unless you are signed into Google.

chrome history tab

As you can see above, I’m signed into Chrome so all of my history gets shown here, including from my MacBook Pro, my iPhone and my Windows 8 machine. However, the key thing to note is that when you press the Clear browsing data button and remove your history, it only removes the local history. If you go to your Google Web History, which I’ll explain later, you’ll see all your searches and visited websites are still stored there.

clear browsing data

In the clear browsing data dialog, you first have to choose the time frame for the data you want to delete. It ranges from the past hour to the beginning of time, with a couple of other options in between. Then you check the boxes for the types of data you want to delete: browsing history, download history, cookies, caches images/files, passwords, autofill data, hosted app data and content licenses. Hosted app data is data from third party-apps you install from the Chrome web store.

Clearing Online Web Search History

Now that we have cleared our local search history, let’s talk about the online stuff. If you’re like most people, you probably use an online email service like Yahoo, Google, or something similar. All of these companies also have search engines and that means you’re probably logged into your account while using the search engine too. I use Chrome and Gmail, so I’m constantly logged into my Google account, which means all of my searches get recorded by Google online too.

Even when I cleared my Google browsing data like shown above, I still found all my previous searches online by going to Granted, only I can see this web history, but it’s still there and if you’re like me, you might have a spouse or significant other that can access your account.

google search history

To delete your web history, you have to select the items individually and then click Remove items. Unfortunately, I haven’t found  way to wipe a week or month or year of data or anything like that. You can delete all your web history, but that’ll delete everything you’ve ever searched for since the beginning of time. You may or may not want to do that.

The same goes for Yahoo and Bing search history. Here are the links if you use those services and want to remove your search history:

Using Private Modes While Browsing

All of the modern browsers now support a private browsing mode which basically doesn’t track anything in the browser or locally. You may still be tracked by the websites you are visiting, but your search history and any local cache files, etc will not be stored. In Chrome it’s called Incognito Mode, in IE it’s called InPrivate Browsing and in Safari and Firefox it’s simply called Private Browsing.

incognito mode

Every browser also has a different look when in the special private mode so that you can actually be sure nothing is being recorded. I would highly suggest you don’t log into any service like Google, Facebook, etc as that would defeat the purpose since you’ll be recorded and tracked. It’s best to use just to visit a website you don’t want anyone else to know you’re visiting and so that there are no traces of your activity.

DNS, ISPs and VPNs

If you’ve cleared your local search history and are searching the web in private browsing mode, are you safe from someone else being able to see what you’re doing? Unfortunately, not completely. There are still a couple of major roadblocks, which most people don’t care about, but could get you into trouble if, let’s say, law enforcement got involved. One of those problems is your ISP.

Whenever you perform a search from your home computer, it’s going through your ISP first and they can pretty much capture whatever data they want. Now if you’re performing searches on Google, your ISP can’t see anything because the connection is secure (HTTPS) and therefore encrypted. However, they can see your DNS queries, which is basically the URLs you type into your web browser. If you’re on a non-encrypted site, then they can see all the content too.

Normally this is not a problem because ISPs can’t legally go snooping around and seeing what you’re up to unless they are asked to give up information by a law enforcement agency or by a legal subpoena given, for example, by the RIAA or MPAA. That’s why if you download movies and music illegally using torrent, you can end up getting a notice from your ISP telling you to stop or else.

The only way around this is to use more advanced security services like a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Normally you hear of VPNs when employees are connecting to their corporate networks securely, but it’s also used by a lot of consumer home users. Lifehacker has a list of top 5 VPN providers for consumer use and I personally use Private Internet Access and have been very happy with it. Not only is your data encrypted, so your ISP can’t see anything you’re doing, but your location is also anonymized, so your real location is hidden from the websites you visit.

As technology gets more advanced, trying to keep your browsing history private will become harder and harder. There are lots of steps you can take, but always remember that nothing is foolproof, so always be careful of what you’re doing online. Enjoy!