Blog Post

Google Privacy D-Day Arrives, Users Search For Snooki

At midnight, Google’s official blog posted a notice confirming that the company’s new privacy policy went into effect. Reaction so far suggests that not many people care about the changes and fewer still understand them.

The changes, which allow Google (NSDQ: GOOG) to combine data across different services, have not yet led to a stampede of users demanding to know more. This morning’s Google top 10 “hot searches” reflected the usual pop culture celebrity fare: “davy jones dead”, “snooki pregnant” “tim tebow taylor swift.” Likewise, the buzz on Twitter today is “Justin is Officially 18” and “Happy National Bieber Day.”

To the extent that the public has cared about the Google changes, here are three observations culled from the company’s Trends page:

  • Searches for “Google privacy” are three times higher today than the monthly average
  • The issue is getting the most attention from residents of San Francisco followed by Washington and New York
  • “Google Privacy Changes” peaked at no. 13 in the “hot search” list

While the Google privacy issue doesn’t appear to be a major issue with the public, that hasn’t stopped the media from publishing a spate of alarming “last chance to stop Google” stories that offer largely inconsequential advice.

One popular magic bullet, for instance is a method for removing your Google web history. This sounds appealing but in reality, the trick applies only to people who have signed up for a special Google feature that allows you to see and monitor what you search for. Most people aren’t using the feature in the first place, so there is nothing to remove.

A slightly more useful piece of advice is to log-out after using Google products like YouTube or Gmail (or simply not signing on in the first place). This will prevent the company from using its new policy to combine data about you across its various services. But in reality, most Gmail users will find it inconvenient to continually log-in and log-out to check their email and will probably decide to just stay logged-in. The upshot is that most people’s relation with Google will be much the same as it was before unless they choose to log-in for services like YouTube or sign-up for features like Google+.

Here are three things that are useful to know about how Google actually works:

  • Google keeps a record of every search performed on every computer for 9-18 months and then makes the data anonymous. The search history is tied to the computer, not a person, and you can’t do anything about this.
  • Google also keeps specific histories about individuals if they to log-in to use its services like Gmail. Google uses all this data both to improve its services and appeal to marketers
  • The company provides a “data liberation” tool that lets you get off the Google grid altogether and take your email, etc with you

In the bigger picture, the Google debate is actually about a very old marketing question: how much information do consumers want to give companies in exchange for free stuff? In this sense, companies like Google and Facebook are no different from drug store chains which have been collecting personal information for years through loyalty and discount programs. Yes, Google is frightening but so is Target who “knows you’re pregnant before you do.”

The question now turns on whether the government should do more to supervise how much data these companies collect. Or whether consumers should instead simply accept that they are a product — and demand more money for selling themselves.