Google made a big announcement yesterday. As of March 1, 2012 Google will share all of the information it has about you with its various services in an effort to help better predict what you’re looking for so Google can provide better results. Or said another way, everything you do on the Google search engine, with your Google+ account, on your Android phone, in your Gmail account, on your Google Calendar, with your Google Contacts, and on YouTube will be tracked and the information integrated, archived, and tied back directly to you. (Google has stated that, for legal reasons, that it will not integrate information from Google Books, Google Wallet and Google Chrome).
Web sites have been tracking online activity since, well, the advent of the Web. With the popularity of online advertising, marketers started using “cookies,” or little files embedded in web sites, that allowed companies to track your online behavior so it could serve you personalized and presumably relevant banner ads.
However, cookies track the web behavior done on your computer, and the companies who track the data usually can’t tie your web usage activities to you personally (I say “usually” as some companies where you register—e.g., you purchase something online—are able to track activity and associate it with your name). In addition, when you clear your browser cache—assuming that you occasionally do—you could delete the cookies and effectively remove your web activity history. And if you had a home computer and a work computer, it was very difficult, if not impossible, for companies to track your web activities on both and again associate that activity back to your name.
With the Google announcement, that all changes. Google has tied all of its services together. Meaning, if you have a Gmail account, by default, you also have a YouTube account, a Google+ account, a Google web search account, etc. When you login to access any Google resource, you’re effectively turning on tacking across all of these popular sites, and there is nothing you can do to turn it off other than to delete all of your Google services.
In practical terms, what does this mean? Here are a few examples, where tracking tied to searching and results could prove beneficial, or have unanticipated negative consequences:
- You conduct a Google search on hotels in San Diego. You email a friend that you’ll soon be visiting San Diego. On your Google+ account you post about how excited you are for your upcoming vacation. Your calendar states the dates that you’ll be in San Diego. You then do a search on YouTube for “zoo animals” and the results that appear feature videos from the San Diego Zoo, with an advertisement for an admissions coupon for the days that you will be in the area. This might actually prove helpful as you plan your California vacation.
- You’re “surfing” the web and doing some research (or spying) on some friends from high school who you saw at a recent reunion. As you type your friends’ names into the Google search engine, the spelling suggestions come back perfectly accurate, because Google has gathered the information from your Google+ and Google contacts. Pictures of your friends are integrated into the search results, as are their family YouTube videos. The results are so good that you forget about what time it is. But Google doesn’t, and on one of your searches, a note pops up letting you know that you’re late for a meeting (because the Google search engine has access to your Google calendar). Helpful? Yes. But kind of spooky too.
- On your Android phone you read a newspaper article about prostate cancer. On your work computer, you conduct a Google search on “prostate cancer” as the article got you wondering if there is anything you should be discussing with your doctor. On your home computer where you forgot to logout of your Gmail account, your 8-year old daughter does a YouTube search on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ player “Kevin Love” (but your daughter doesn’t understand Boolean searching and she doesn’t use quotation marks around her search, so YouTube thinks she’s looking for videos with the word “Kevin” and the word “love” somewhere in the description). The YouTube results that appear feature a man named “Kevin” with videos related to prostates and love and, well, you can guess the rest.
Is the third example extreme? Absolutely. Unlikely? I don’t know. Because there is no human—no librarian—vetting the recommendations, results are going to appear based on a complex word relationship algorithm. We’ve all seen goofy results like this. For example, sometimes I’ll shop on Amazon for business books. Sometimes I’ll shop for children’s toys. And sometimes Amazon will recommend books related to building a toy business. The point is, we just don’t know and what worries privacy advocates is, we as users have no say in the matter.
Take this to the next extreme with Google Earth and Google Maps. Because Google knows who I am and where I live, will it be able to combine my location with my online activity and sell that information to advertisers? Will companies be able to purchase my address and send me direct mail related to San Diego vacations? Will a doctor’s office purchase a billboard outside my home espousing their prostate exams? Will a hospital in San Diego send text messages to my Android phone highlighting its southern California cancer center? It sounds crazy, yet I believe it’s technically doable and possible.
My personal belief is that the scenarios above will not come to fruition. More than likely, the government and/or consumer outcry will provide some level of opt-out on these tracking services. If not, Microsoft Bing is going to start stealing a lot of market share, Yahoo Mail is going to become super popular again, and if you run an online video site, expect to see your traffic massively soar. The folks at Google are too smart to let that happen.
In reality, what will occur is that your search results will become more personal and relevant. Over time, as Google learns what’s important to you, your experience using Google products will most likely improve, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. The big question is, at what cost as it relates to your privacy? (For a good FAQ on Google’s changes, check out this article from the Washington Post).
Now that you Know More!, what do you think? If Google does not offer an opt-out, will you change your usage with Google products?