Google Loves Our Data! Let Us Count the Ways…

As admirers go, Google is definitely of the secret variety. From its highly guarded formula for generating search results, to the shroud of mystery that surrounds its plans “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” to a complex privacy policy that is spread over 20 separate pages on the Web, the search giant invariably raises more questions than it answers. “Don’t be evil,” reads the company’s motto, but apparently it’s OK to be evasive. “It’s somewhat of a paradox,” financial analyst Jordan Rohan told the Los Angeles Times last year. “Google’s whole purpose is to make information easier to access—unless, of course, you want to know information about Google.” As the Times added, “Google’s unwillingness to disclose little more than the legally required basics of how it does what it does—and where it’s headed—has left advertisers puzzled, partners confused, competitors nervous and investors frustrated.”

Make no mistake, however, this secret admirer really does care about us. Why else would Google give us so much—lightning-fast search results, interactive maps, email service (with plenty of storage space to archive our communications), online calendars, word processing programs, spreadsheet applications, and more—all free of charge?

The answer, of course, is that Google actually gets plenty in return, in the form of massive amounts of data that it compiles on consumer interests, tastes, and behavior. For all of its variations on the search engine theme—from Google News to Google Video to Google Product Search—the company remains above all else an advertising engine, one whose $500 stock price and $700 billion revenues are testaments of its success.

So how does Google love us? Let us count the ways, with a sampling of the kinds of user data to which Google currently has access:
1. The keywords and phrases we use in the searches we perform.
2. The time and date of these searches.
3. Our Internet IP address and browser configuration.
4. The websites we visit as a result of these searches.
5. The amount of time we spend on those sites before returning to Google.
6. Our patterns of navigation as we travel away from and back to Google.
7. The addresses and directions we enter in Google Maps.
8. The messages we send and receive via Gmail or Google Talk.
9. The schedules we create on Google Calendar.
10. The documents we create and edit in Google Docs.
11. The figures we enter in Google Spreadsheets.
12. The sources we subscribe to in Google Reader.
13. The accounts we create and the information we post to Google’s far-flung Web properties, including Blogger, Orkut, and YouTube.
14. The activities we carry out using a variety of Google-branded “helper” applications, including Google Desktop, Google Toolbar, Google Checkout, Google Web History, and Picasa.

“Google has been aggressive about collecting information about its users’ activities online,” observed Adam Cohen in the New York Times. “It stores their search data, possibly forever…. Its e-mail system, Gmail, scans the content of e-mail messages so relevant ads can be posted. Google’s written privacy policy reserves the right to pool what it learns about users from their searches with what it learns from their e-mail messages, though Google says it won’t do so. It also warns that users’ personal information may be processed on computers located in other countries.”

The lynchpin in Google’s vast data-dragnet is the small text file placed on the user’s hard drive, known as a “cookie,” stamped with a unique user ID and passing information back and forth between one’s PC and a particular website. “Google was the first search engine to use a cookie that expires in 2038,” explains “…This cookie places a unique ID number on your hard disk. Anytime you land on a Google page, you get a Google cookie if you don’t already have one. If you have one, they read and record your unique ID number.”

As if Google (with its billions of searches and millions of users it serves every month) doesn’t already know enough about us, its proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick will bring online consumer surveillance to an entirely new level. DoubleClick might not be the household name that Google is, but in its field—online advertising—it is perhaps even more dominant, reaching an estimated 80 to 85 percent of all Web surfers with some 720 billion ads a year. Its consumer analysis, profiling, and behavioral targeting technologies, carried out on a vast network of affiliated websites, are extraordinarily thorough. “Without a doubt, DoubleClick’s historical data is very valuable,” says Jupiter Research analyst Emily Riley. “Every time you’re online, every page visit, and every ad you see comes with the possibility that a cookie is placed on your machine. DoubleClick has all the data.”

And soon Google will have access to all of that data as well. DoubleClick’s DART system, for example, will provide Google with a complete set of applications—and data access—to allow it to extend its more linear search advertising business into the third-party and rich-media advertising market. Another of DoubleClick’s key technologies, called Motif, is used to track user interaction with video content. As the search and online video markets converge, the ability to identify and assess user response to interactive media environments will be central to online advertising. Google’s interest in such technology was no doubt fueled by its $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube in 2006. Google is now in the process of “data-tagging” all of the videos on YouTube in order to make the site a much more effective platform for advertisers.

A combined Google and DoubleClick, clearly, will be a potent force in the online universe. As the New York State Consumer Protection Board recently declared, the Google/DoubleClick “merger presents significant privacy implications. The combination of DoubleClick’s Internet surfing history generated through consumers’ pattern of clicking on specific advertisements, coupled with Google’s database of consumers’ past Internet searches, will result in the creation of ‘super-profiles,’ which will make up the world’s single largest electronic repository of personally and non-personally identifiable information.”

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