Never mind that Google's been collecting your data for years and using it to personalize your search and advertising results. Never mind that Google reads every email message you send or receive in Gmail. Never mind it scans every document you put in Google Docs. Never mind it knows about every appointment you put in Google Calendar. Never mind it has a record of every single query you ever entered on Google search. And never mind that, now, Google also indexes your social network if you're one of the 90 million people using Google+.
These changes come on the heels of Google integrating Google+ data with Google Web search results. That move, dubbed Google Search Plus Your World (or Google SPYW for short, ironically just a few characters short of SPYWARE) also caused an uproar among search and privacy watchers, as well as freaking out competing social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. Worse, Google SPYW might just be the straw that breaks the trust busters' backs.
Now, I'm the first guy to cry "foul" when Facebook or other services change their systems and expose my private data without my permission. But Google's changes don't fall into that category. Here's why Google is NOT being evil, why I'm not worried about these changes at Google, and why you, and regulators, should climb down off the ledge.
Firstly, Google is not doing anything with your data that it wasn't doing already. It's just going to do it more efficiently and effectively. As any data modeler knows, the better your data is structured, the deeper and more accurate the data mining, the better the search results will be. That, and the better (more relevant) the ad targeting will be. That, and the better (more relevant) your social results will be.
That's good news for users as well as marketers. Your data is still private and anonymous. It's just being indexed, sliced, and diced with more speed and precision. You can still download and archive much of your Google data using Takeout (and one day, hopefully, all of your data). And you can still delete your Google profile if you're paranoid.
Google has been vilified because it is not letting users opt-out of these changes. Excuse me? That's a key deficiency (or attribute, depending on your point of view) of all SaaS platforms. Users are always at the mercy of the platform provider's design whims. Get ready for more squealing like this when Facebook makes its Timeline mandatory in a few weeks.
The fact is, every time you use Google, you agree to let the company use your personal data to personalize your experience. The mere act of signing up for the service by establishing a name and a password is, in effect, the same as signing a contract on Google's terms. And part of that contract gives Google the right to change the contract as it sees fit. Here's the Faustian deal: You give Google access to your data, and Google gives you some amazing free software and services -- and in several cases, it's the best software and services available on the web.
Which brings me to the antitrust charges. Some people and politicians are pointing to Google SPYW and its "tying" of Google+ into Google Web search as analogous to Microsoft's integration of Internet Explorer with Windows 95. For anyone who has been living in a cave, that was the move that triggered the historic U.S. vs. Microsoft antitrust case.
Here are some key distinctions that I believe negate that argument.
- Internet Explorer was the default browser in Windows. If you clicked a hyperlink, Explorer opened. In those days, the average user required a certain level of sophistication to seek out and install a third-party web browser. And even then, Internet Explorer would open as the default browser in many situations. Conversely, Google is not the default search engine on all PCs. And on those where it is, users today can easily bookmark or otherwise define another search engine as their default.
- Microsoft was the gatekeeper for what apps were pre-installed on Windows. That represented a significant barrier to entry that Netscape and other browser developers were not able to overcome. Google, on the other hand, is not the gatekeeper for what apps are available on the web. Google has not erected -- indeed, could not erect -- barriers preventing smart developers from building and marketing better search engines or social networks.
- Twitter and Facebook choose not to allow Google to crawl and index their social data. My guess is that Google would jump at the chance to index both social networks, and further improve our search results. There's no exclusion here.
- Internet Explorer could not be uninstalled from Windows. But users can easily switch to any other search engine. Not only that, but they can easily disable Google SPYW with a single click on their Google search results. See this Google+ post I wrote which documents how easily you can disable Google SPYW.
Lastly, these unwarrented but understandable fears fundamentally advocate against better search results for users. Google has figured out how to blend social and search to give users both highly personalized and utterly generic results, in a single platform experience that's almost entirely supported by advertising (and largely unobtrusive ads to boot). We should be applauding, not cringing.
For PR and social media types, Google SPYW is a significant advance with profound implications. If Google+ gains critical mass and ends up with hundreds of millions of users, your prospects and customers will be far more likely to see your content in their page one SERPs. You want that, right? That's why you spend so much money and time on SEO.
And if you're a consumer, you want your vendors to see your rants or kudos in their search results, right? That's why you tweet them when you're angry or fire off an angry blog post.
In the end, the uproar over Google+ integration into Google SERPs and Google's privacy, data mining, and TOS changes is a tempest in a teapot. Chill out, everybody. Let's see how this plays out and if our search results do improve. And if they don't improve, well, you can always kill your Google account and switch to Alta Vista.