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Google placing ads in new “promotions” tab

Google’s recent rethinking of the Gmail inbox — segregating email from social networks, promotions from brands, updates from applications, and postings from forums into their own tabs and leaving the rest in a “primary” tab — has posed problems for those relying on email as a marketing tool. This had immediate impacts on the click rate of email marketing (see “Gmail’s new tabbed interface impacts email marketing negatively“).

Now a new issue has come up. Along with being relegated to the “promotions” tab — unless users have manually pulled them out into the primary tab — marketers are now being pushed down in the tab, below Google-provided ads.

I haven’t personally seen this behavior, but others have captured it:

gmail-promotions-ad

Here you see the ads presented as beige-colored emails, although they aren’t’ really emails but ads that behave like emails: you click on them, and they open, for example. But the advertisers don’t have access to users’ email addresses, and they aren’t sent like email.

Ricardo Bilton at VentureBeat got this response from Google:

Instead of ads always appearing at the top of your inbox, they’ve been relegated to a more appropriate place in your Promotions category. In addition, we’ve raised the quality of these ads and won’t show you an ad unless it’s relevant — which means you may sometimes see no ads at all in your Promotions tab. You can also dismiss the ads you see in your Promotions tab by clicking the “X” button on the right-hand side.

The relevance of the ads underscores the fact that Google’s algorithms are reading our email to figure out what is relevant. And in these NSA-tainted days, that makes me wonder, Can the government ask Google to share the analysis of our emails? Could that be another hedge? “We aren’t reading your emails, we are just looking at the analysis from Google’s Gmail algorithms.”

Google argued in court recently that people sending email to users of Gmail have no “reasonable expectation” of privacy or confidentiality. They liken their actions to those of a business assistant or secretary opening our mail. But is that a true analogy, or just a convenient dodge?

Dominic Rushe, Google: don’t expect privacy when sending to Gmail

Consumer Watchdog, the advocacy group that uncovered the filing, called the revelation a “stunning admission.” It comes as Google and its peers are under pressure to explain their role in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance of US citizens and foreign nationals.

“Google has finally admitted they don’t respect privacy,” said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director. “People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents’ privacy, don’t use Gmail.”

Two questions:

  1. Does this cross the creepy line that Eric Schmidt talked about when he said “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it”?
  2. Can Google be compelled by the government to share their analysis of our wants, desires, and interests?

What is needed is an explicit opt-out policy, where people can say, “Do not read my emails.” It’s questionable whether Google would allow such a thing or how much it would charge to provide email service without the revenue from advertising. And the government’s interest in snooping transcends the petty annoyances of advertising.