How to Manage Your YouTube Privacy Settings

Smartphone with YouTube video player and privacy shield

When you watch your favorite videos on YouTube, it probably never occurs to you that YouTube is watching you back. The video service monitors the videos you watch to provide more targeted advertising. Information about you is collected and analyzed to better determine who you are and what your interests are. Changing a few settings in YouTube can help you secure your privacy without costing you any of the features of the service.

How Google Earns Billions from YouTube

You may think of YouTube as your go-to hotspot for funny cat videos and movie trailers. But video is one of the most sought-after part in marketing. Research shows users tend to spend more time watching a video than reading an ad. As a result, advertisers spend billions of dollars to get your eyes on one of their videos. One of the prime companies to benefit from this is YouTube.

YouTube has over 149 million viewers each month. Those viewers consume an average of 1 billion hours of video each day. With that many people using the service, it is no wonder that YouTube was able to bring in an estimated $8 billion in 2015. But where does all that money come from?

How Advertising Affects You

When you think of ads affecting you, you probably think of an ad causing you to purchase a product or watch a new TV show. And while ads are effective at selling their products, they affect you in many other ways as well.

The way Google is able to earn billions of dollars from YouTube is through targeted ads. Those ads are not just sent to every YouTube user, but are carefully targeted at users with a certain profile. Every video you watch on the site, every search for a video, helps YouTube create a more targeted profile of your interests. Even data about how long you watch a video, what point you click on to the next video, and which ads you interact with are collected by YouTube.

Over time, your profile affects the ads you see, the videos suggested for you to watch, and your experience on YouTube. Private information that you may think is kept secret is collected by the company to fine-tune your profile. Your privacy is affected, even without your realizing it.

Take Control of YouTube’s Privacy Settings

While you can’t block all ads from YouTube, even with ad blockers, you can limit the information collected on your profile. By adjusting the privacy settings in your YouTube account, you can limit access to your information.

Finding the Privacy Controls

YouTube privacy settingsOn the website, navigate to the YouTube Home screen. At the top on the far-right corner, you will see your profile icon. Click on it to bring up the settings.

On the YouTube app, you can find a similar settings screen. From the home screen tap on your profile icon on the top right corner.

Click on ‘Settings’ either on the app or webpage.

Here you will find the ‘Privacy’ tab. Click on that to bring up privacy settings. The screens are very different depending on whether you are on the app or the website. Below we will describe what you can adjust in the settings of the app and on the website.

Adjust Your Privacy Settings on the YouTube App

There are two main sections you can address from here – your search history and your watch history.

Every time you watch a video, even for just a few moments, it is added to your watch history. This is part of the data YouTube uses to create your profile. Click on the slider next to ‘Pause watch history’ to stop YouTube from collecting this info.

To completely clear the information Google has stored about your watch history, click on ‘Clear watch history’ at the top of the screen. This will delete all the videos stored in your history to this point.

The search history is the record YouTube keeps of the searches you perform in YouTube itself. This is separate from any searches you do in the Google search engine or Chrome address bar. To stop YouTube from recording your search history, click on the slider next to ‘Pause search history’. You can also delete your search history from YouTube by clicking ‘Clear search history’ near the top of the screen.

If you prefer to keep the convenience of having YouTube show your search and viewing history, but want to exclude a particular video, Incognito mode is the answer.

From the ‘Account’ screen, click on ‘Turn on Incognito’. Videos searched for and watched in ‘Incognito’ mode will not be added to your search or watch history. Currently, Incognito mode is only available on the YouTube app.

Adjust Your Privacy Settings on the YouTube Website

Here you are presented with different options than on the App. You have the option of keeping your liked videos private. Selecting this will keep others who visit your profile from seeing the videos you have clicked ‘Like’ on. In the same way, you can keep your saved playlists private, or subscriptions to other’s video channels private.

To control how YouTube shows ads based on your profile, look further down the page at the section headed: ‘Ads based on my interest’. You will find a link to your ‘Google Ads Settings’ that will take you to the ad settings for all of Google, not just YouTube.

To stop Google from targeted advertising to you based on your profile, click the slider next to ‘Ad personalization is ON’. Turning this feature off will not stop you from seeing ads on YouTube and other Google products, it merely stops them from presenting targeted ads based on your profile.

A Simple Step to Protect Your Privacy

YouTube collects an enormous amount of personal information on you to create targeted ads. Adjusting your privacy settings will reduce the amount of information YouTube and Google have about you. The fact remains, though, that these companies still know more about you than perhaps you want them to.

One simple step you can take to drastically improve your privacy is to use a VPN service. A VPN keeps your information anonymous by acting as a middleman between you and the websites you visit online. Information from your computer is encrypted and sent to the VPN server. There it is sent on to the site, and the site returns the requested data to the VPN server. The server forwards the information back to you, encrypting the data to and from your computer.

Because the websites you access only deal with an VPN server and not with you directly, you remain anonymous. Your privacy remains guarded while you have full access to the sites and services you have come to appreciate. A VPN also provides other benefits,such as avoiding geographic restrictions to streaming video or firewalls at work. To learn more about how a VPN could benefit you, check out our post on choosing the best VPN for your needs.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. She has broad experience developing rigorous VPN testing procedures and protocols for our VPN review section and has tested dozens of VPNs over the years.