Google Privacy and the Future of Online Advertising

In February of 2010 I wrote a blog titled “Apple vs. Google vs. Privacy” wherein I talked about the shift in Google’s behavior towards gathering more and more of our behavior into an algorithm to best serve us advertising online that we’re likely to click on.  In recent years online advertising has gone beyond just banners and text links to a new type of online ads powered by a process called Retargeting.

Retargeting is where your behavior is tracked by browser cookies, little snippets of code that record where you stop online, and then use that data to target the most relevant ads to you wherever you browse.  Google has done this for years, using even the body of your e-mails in Gmail to serve you text ads and so forth.  More advanced examples of retargeting are like the ads I get for SEOmoz because I attend their workshops and am a subscriber.  I see their ads everywhere, well, theirs and OkCupid’s.  Don’t ask.

I’m an identified target for their retargeting ads as I’ve been to the site a few times, though the ads don’t know that I’m already a customer.  Joanna Lord from SEOmoz wrote a great piece this week about the best retargeting companies, worth a read if that is something that might help your business.

The future however, is looking to be more and more guided by your user behavior, and Google’s recent privacy policy change has me believing that this isn’t about Google+ beating Facebook as a social network, but instead about collecting your data so Google can sell retargeting advertisements and continue to grow its advertising revenues.  (Especially in light of Apple making more net profit in Q4 of 2011 than Google brought in in total revenue for that period.)

While you’re logged into Facebook or Twitter, Google cannot track your behavior.  Google doesn’t know what you say to your friends, and cannot then take those conversations to better target advertisements to you.  While you’re using Gmail, or Google chat, or now as they want you to be doing, using Google+, they can (according to this new privacy policy) record all of your personal information in a format that they can share across all Google networked sites, thus “one privacy policy for all of Google”.

The internet, and by which I mean people like me who always think this stuff is more serious than it ever is, has been going crazy about the shift in Google’s policy.  There is even a new search modifier called “Don’t Be Evil” that adds Twitter and Facebook results to Google’s new Search Plus Your World results that right now only favors Google+ results.  (Even when that profile has never been posted to.)

Google makes their profits from advertising and it may be that Google has predicted a major drop or has seen a decline in these advertising channels and they’re scared.  Fear is a great motivator, motivator enough to have Google CEO Larry Page threatening his own employees to hop onto the new more aggressive Google bandwagon or start looking for a new job.

I for one will not be creating a profile for Image Freedom on Google+.  I don’t believe in it as a platform, I see it not as an innovation, but instead as a data mining resource for Google.  I also don’t know enough business owners who use Google+ to warrant my jumping onto that bandwagon.  There’s a joke about Google+, “Occupy Google+, It’s Lonely Here” because people on the most part weren’t looking for a new social network, they tweet or they Facebook and Google+ hasn’t revolutionized anything worth motivating a migration in their online behavior.

It is a time for caution.  In light of SOPA and PIPA being shot down by overwhelming online protest, I feel like Google is sliding into those cross hairs as their Privacy Policy now favors Google more so than it favors the user.  It’ll be interesting to watch as the internet as a whole has a chance to react to this shift to a darker, greedier Google.

Regardless of what the next few weeks look like, this is going to be a hot topic inside the search community for a long time to come.