Google Shakes Up The Advertising World By Using User Data In Ads

Google recently decided to risk joining the fracas surrounding online privacy by creating new, “social” product-endorsement ads that include the names, comments, and even photographs of its Google+ users. Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook have been fielding questions about privacy since social media’s infancy, and a good portion of those questions are related to advertising. Facebook spearheaded the move toward social ads, and while the company has taken its lumps for playing it somewhat fast and loose with user privacy, this new move by Google indicates that others in Silicon Valley feel that the benefits reaped by the use of such ads outweigh the inevitable public relations backlash. It’s worth pointing out that Google has already announced that users under 18 will be exempt, and that adult users can opt out. The new policy is set to go live on November 11th, 2013.

googleThis transition was made public when Google released an updated terms of service agreement on October 11th. This policy indicates that for those who do not opt out, the primary source for this information will come from Google’s +1 button. If a user endorses a website, blog, product, or service by clicking the +1 button, that user will run the risk of having his or her personal information used in an ad for that product or service. This can also happen as a result of ratings or endorsements expressed by users in the Google Play online store, among other Google properties. According to Marc Rotenberg, the director of the online privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), this may violate a 2011 agreement with the Federal Trade Commission wherein Google pledged not to retroactively change users’ privacy settings. This was probably a result of the heat Facebook was taking at the time for doing almost the exact same thing that Google is doing now, by putting names and faces of Facebook users into the ads seen along the edge of the screen.

Google is trying to downplay the drama by emphasizing the things that will not be changing–posts shared only with certain Google+ circles won’t suddenly become public, and information from friends-locked posts will not be displayed in public ads. While this is a wise move, the fact that the new Shared Endorsements (as Google calls them) are opt-out instead of opt-in is going to make a lot of users angry. The average American does not want his or her image used to sell a product, and certainly not without some kind of compensation. The timing of this is also interesting, as French regulators recently announced their plan to sanction Google for its controversial 2012 decision to make personal data that is shared with one of their properties, such as YouTube, available to all other Google properties, such as Google+ and Gmail. Additionally, this announcement from Google came a day after Facebook announced that they will soon remove the privacy function that allows a profile to be non-searchable in the website’s search engine. The Facebook team is likely to be relieved that Google took the heat off them by making an even larger announcement the following day.

That connection across multiple platforms is a key to why Google’s announcement is indeed bigger than Facebook’s–while people may not be happy to be featured in an ad on the Facebook website, it is only one site. Having personal information splashed across the entire Google empire, not to mention used in an advertising context without payment, is a vastly different story. Google must have anticipated this thinking, because they tried to mitigate it in their official statement to the media: “Your Google username and password let you access lots of useful things […] your Gmail messages, Google+ photos, YouTube videos, Google Contacts list and more.” While this is true, the price of convenience could be to have all of those platforms hacked with the knowledge of only one password. Users who are annoyed with the new policy have reportedly been, instead of opting out, replacing their own profile pictures with that of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. If this protest becomes widespread, Schmidt may find himself endorsing products he’s never even heard of, let alone wants to support.