The Grand Bargain

Last week, my team and I sat down over bagels, donuts and coffee (I actually had a couple extra cinnamon fritters, but who’s counting?) to watch the Google I/O conference stream.

Now you’ve probably read some of the tech coverage from the conference already, and I don’t need to amplify all their stuff because hey, I work for Bing. But what Google I/O really made clear to us was, under all the technophilia, Google’s main focus is on monetizing its users’ data. They will be paying more attention to your location, analyzing your photos and turning them into animated gifs and they’d like some credit for their innovations while rarely mentioning that all this personal data collection gives them more opportunities to show you ads.

What’s different this time is people are beginning to realize what the Google consumer “bargain” really means and are having a conversation about it.

Analysts like Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter Group called it when he advised Google customers to “know you are the product.” Mobile as an ad platform for Google is getting more granular – and the flip side of that is they know more about you.

An interesting comments debate went on at Gizmodo, where the first poster “GhostTMG” raised the question of privacy. While politely recognizing the presence of people excited about Google’s announcements the commenter wrote: “I’m just not ready to allow one organization to develop this huge of a profile of me so it can be sold off to the highest bidder.”

You know, for some folks – the bargain they strike with Google is fine. Just like personal space in an elevator, people have varying degrees of tolerance for how close another person gets to them, and varying degrees of comfort when that person is actually a corporation not wearing deodorant.

But what’s even more worthy of discussion (and you will see plenty of it in that Gizmodo comment thread) is how little people actually realize what Google does. How people’s searches are really not quite as anonymous as they think and Google actually retains data – including IP addresses – for quite some time. (See infographic below if you want to learn more about anonymization, Bing and Google.)


(Click on image to see full screen.)

A few weeks ago, a research psychologist named Robert Epstein published an article in TIME magazine that examined the difference between what consumers think Google does versus what Google actuallydoes.

“About a billion people use Google’s search engine each month to find everything from plastic hangers to plastic surgeons, and, as far as the consumer is concerned, Google is an information company, pure and simple,” he explained. “But from Google’s perspective – and I don’t mean Google’s PR department, I mean Google’s management – Google is an advertisingcompany.”

Epstein explains. “The immediate problem is that the transaction is inherently deceitful. The consumer perceives the transaction at one level, Google at another.”

Now there is nothing startling about selling online ads to generate revenue – Bing does it too. But we’ve tried to be transparent about the data we share and use, and because we are not solely an advertising-driven company, we have the leeway to make product choices that serve consumers first.

In a more recent piece for US News and World report (Google’s Gotcha) Epstein recounts all the ways that Google tracks its customers. If you watched our many Scroogled videos, you’d know some of these. And again, you may be the sort of person who doesn’t care how close that guy in Google Glass yelling “OK, Glass” stands next to you in the elevator.

But if you even know how Google tracks its customers, you are in the minority. And when people find out, sometimes they don’t like it. GFK Roper, on behalf of Microsoft, conducted a study and found 70% percent didn’t know Google read their mail in order to serve ads, and it drastically affected their perception of Google when it did… 9 out of 10 wanted the practice to stop.

Sure, you might be willing to let Google track your online searches because you like the search results they deliver, and if you’re going to be served ads, they may as well be as relevant to you as possible. But the bargain might lose its appeal when you find out they are keeping (and mining) your emails, your location, your online purchases, and your voicemails.

Similarly, at one point you might be willing to let Google store contacts and credit card numbers, because it’s convenient to keep them in one place when you need to buy something online or find that person to send an email. But this bargain could lose its appeal when you find out Google is sharing your contact information to application developers whenever you buy an app for your Android phone.

If Google knows more about your life than your significant other, your family, or your friends, what does that say? Google is a big business and has to make money – off of you. Do you trust Google to do so with your best interests at heart?

The other thing that struck us about Google I/O was this: there really weren’t a lot of Internet partnership moments in the Google ecosystem or on that stage. Google’s streaming music is intended to crowd out Spotify and Pandora. Their back-end platform for gaming no doubt impacts a dozen startups based on that premise. The true horizons for search and its ecosystem are shrinking, just when they should be getting wider.

It is easy to point out contradictions on cosmetic levels – it was ironic to hear Larry Page talk about industry negativity being bad, as his staff made digs at Apple Maps and Page himself explained that Oracle (with whom Google is in court) is all about money and not collaboration. Or just about the same time Larry arrived on stage, Google’s lawyers sent Microsoft a cease-and-desist order to remove our YouTube app for Windows Phone, in essence making it harder for our customers to watch funny cat videos. Yes, I will forbear talking about how Google imitated the Bing home page and how competition and having rivals probably spurs Google on more than positivity. The day is long and after all, I’m That Guy Who Works For Bing.

But I think it’s kind of interesting, that a company that talks a great deal about the possibilities presented by Internet innovation, the open source movement, and freedom of speech, has an ecosystem play that continues to tie their users down to one identity, one technology system, and to an ad-propelled company that can delete what a G + user says without appeal. When you sign onto Bing, you can sign on with Microsoft or a Facebook account. We don’t have to know everything about you to give you a great search experience. And yeah, our maps work, too.

– Stefan Weitz, Senior Director, Bing

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