According to Google, the author of this article isn’t Karen Weise, 30-year-old woman and Bloomberg Businessweek reporter. Instead it sees a 55-to-64-year-old man interested in credit cards, finance, Los Angeles, politics, and “table games,” whatever those are. That’s the information provided by a Google tool that’s been available since 2009 but which few people know about. It lets users see what the search giant has inferred about them based on the websites they visit. (The URL is cumbersome, but try searching “ad preferences manager.” It should be the first link.)
The results can be spot on—or wildly off the mark. They’re based on a “cookie,” a file placed by Google (and many other companies) on each computer browser to track how its users surf the Web. Google actually knows far more than browsing histories, though. It knows what people write in Gmail messages, what YouTube videos they prefer, and where they go with an Android phone. Historically, Google’s privacy policies forced it to cordon off some of its most important data sources from each other, so the profile of a given YouTube user was totally separate from her Gmail profile. It was a schizophrenic view of the world.
Not everyone welcomes the change. The tech site Gizmodo published a post titled “Google’s Broken Promise: The End of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ ” and argued that Google had pulled the rug out from under users who had agreed to the original privacy terms. Users can opt for Google not to track certain types of data, like search histories and instant messages. But the only way to prevent Google from sharing the info it does collect across sites is by setting up different accounts to use with each service.
At the heart of the unease is that while aggregating data might help personalize the Web, it’ll help advertisers, too. “With all due respect for their desire to give better search results, clearly this helps them monetize and create more advertising opportunities,” says David Sable, global CEO of the ad agency Young & Rubicam. Sable says the Google ads he sees now are sometimes relevant but often way off base. He says companies such as Google still have trouble discerning motivation, or why people click or talk about certain things. That means Google tends to focus on what consumers have done in the past—like their most recent search—rather than trying to understand what they might do next. If someone searches for high school textbooks, now Google would probably show an ad for more textbooks. If it knew the searcher were a middle-aged parent, though, it’d be smarter to advertise resources for financing college.
“Google is trying to figure this out, and when they do get it right, it will be game-changing,” says Heidi Messer, co-founder of Collective[i], a company that specializes in analyzing marketing data. So many human interactions that used to be invisible to businesses are now tracked online, she says, adding that Google “literally has all of the data that anyone could want.” The challenge is to make sense of it.
Google’s ad and search results won’t change overnight; the new policy just sets out what Google may do with your data, not necessarily what it’s planning to do. In January, Google began integrating posts, photos, and profile pages from its social network Google+ into search results—a preview of how Google services may grow increasingly personalized. “All of these services start to hinge on your identity more and more,” says Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. He advocates that Web services give people clearer ways to control their data and better indications for how their personal information is being used. Without that, he says, “You don’t know what’s been edited out, so you don’t know what you’re missing.”