Big Brother Google

Like a lot of other people, I have gotten used to the targeted ads that Google serves up as I make my way around the web. When I am using Gmail and get an email message about, say, Vikings, the message is invariably accompanied by a list of ads in the sidebar trying to sell me things like Viking ships or pillaging equipment (or pricey kitchen ranges—the software isn’t always able to pick up on nuances of context). And it no longer surprises me to see frequent banner ads for Soccer.com on websites that I visit, since I have done web searches for soccer gear and have visited soccer.com in the past.

So far so good. These ads tailored to my specific searches and/or browsing habits were a bit creepy at first, but I’ve gotten used to them, and I (naively, perhaps) trust that Google won’t do anything too sinister with any information it collects about me. I have to admit, however, that I was a bit alarmed when I was visiting a non-Google site (a Yahoo site, in fact) and the following banner ad appeared at the top of the page:

Banner Ad

That string of terms—“oakland airport connector kerry hamill city council”—is an exact Google search that I had performed a day or two beforehand, when I had been looking for information about BART’s Kerry Hamill trying to get the Oakland City Council to delay any discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Oakland Airport Connector last month. (BART has been successfully deploying a “delay plus inevitability” strategy: first argue that it’s too soon to debate the merits of the project because planning isn’t yet far enough along to have complete information, then later argue that it’s too late to debate the merits of the project, because planning is already too far along to change course.)

I have to admit that I was pretty disturbed to see a verbatim string of my Google search terms appearing in a banner ad on a different website. I assume that Google provides the banner ads to the other site (in this case Yahoo, which has an advertising partnership with Google), and I also assume (or at least I hope) that the ad was being served directly from a Google server, so that the third-party site (i.e., Yahoo) never had access to that particular search string, and only someone who happened to be looking at my screen could know that I had performed that search. I did not click on the banner ad, so I can’t say for sure where it would have taken me, but from the look of the underlying target URL, it seemed like clicking on the ad would probably have brought me to some other search engine where I would have found results related to those search terms.

As it happens, this particular Google search is not something that I’m at all embarrassed about, but it’s easy to imagine how this “innovation” in advertising could cause problems for people. Imagine that someone on a lunch break at work does a Google search for an embarrassing medical condition, or for something related to a personal problem in their life, or any number of other private matters. Then the next day,  the person is working on something with a colleague, and when they visit a third-party website, a large banner ad at the top of the page says “Click here for [embarrasing medical condition]” in a large font. Not only could it be pretty mortifying, but depending on the content of the search terms, one can imagine scenarios in which it could cause the worker serious professional problems.

I’m not sure why I find it so creepy to see a verbatim search term parroted back to me by a banner ad, since I already knew that my web habits would be used by Google to tailor ads to me. The ad above, which I have seen several times on a several different visits to a Yahoo website, felt very different from the usual targeted ads I see, which might be based on search terms I have used, but which don’t reference the exact search terms themselves. And admittedly, I’m not well versed in the subtleties of online privacy policies. I spent some time yesterday at Google’s “Privacy Center,” and while they are upfront about using cookies and collecting “aggregated non-personal information,” it’s all pretty vague and I couldn’t find anything specific about how a particular search term could be used to target advertising to users on third-party sites. (This may be a failure on my part, but if the information is there, it wasn’t very easy to find. I sent a message to their privacy people asking for clarification, and if anyone has a better grasp of this stuff, I’d welcome more information.)

I don’t know if this experience will change my web habits—I’m already somewhat careful about what searches I perform, and what sites I frequent, but after this experience, I will probably be even more careful, and I recommend that people use due caution when performing web searches or surfing the web, especially from work computers or computers that are shared with other people. I was so put off by seeing my Google search term in a banner ad that I have been using Bing for my searches for the past 24 hours, not because I trust Microsoft any more than I trust Google (in fact, I trust Microsoft less), but because I already use Google to get my email and my RSS feeds, and somehow it seems like diversifying a bit might be wise, so that at least there is some part of my online life which isn’t being monitored, analyzed and exploited by a single company.

Anyway, my general rule of thumb is that it never hurts to assume that your online activities could become public at some point, or could be turned over to government officials. Most likely one’s online activities won’t ever become public or get turned over to a Federal agency, but really, you never know. Google seems like a relatively benevolent company, and of course they have a strong incentive to protect people’s privacy, since it could be devastating to their business if they became known as a company that didn’t protect user information. On the other hand, they also have incentives to misuse personal information, especially if they can do so without anyone knowing about it, so it might be prudent to go use a computer at the public library if you want to do that search for the embarrassing medical condition or whatever other private matter you want to research. Otherwise you—or your spouse, or your housemate, or your child, or your coworker—might start seeing the search appear in banner ads the next day.

8 Responses to “Big Brother Google”

  1. ng says:

    I thought that search phrases I used were being kept in my computer – – ??? (they have seemed to come up in other places, as you said) – – is that not possible?

  2. dc says:

    ng: I’m not sure what you mean by “kept in my computer,” but basically no, it’s not possible. In order for Google to produce the search results, your search term needs to be sent from your browser to their computers, which quickly analyze the search term, farm out the search to a network of other computers which find relevant pages from Google’s ginormous index of web pages, then compile the “relevant results” which get sent back to the web browser on your computer.

    More generally, any time you do pretty much anything on the web, the information is not being kept “in your computer,” whether it be entering your username and password on a website in order to check your bank balance, or entering a search term in Google, or looking at pictures on Flickr. In all these cases, your web browser is basically just acting as a mediator between you and some other computer (or set of computers) at some far away location. We have to trust the companies that own those far away computers (Google or your bank or whoever) that they will protect any information we provide, whether it be a password or information about sites we have visited. There are more and less secure ways of transmitting and protecting people’s personal info, but there’s always some risk involved whenever one is entering personal information online.

    Back to Google specifically, they are (understandably) reluctant to get into too much detail about how they analyze people’s search terms and browsing habits in order to provide relevant search results (and relevant advertising), because those details are proprietary information that gives Google an advantage over competing search engines. The downside of that caginess, however, is that whenever Google is questioned about privacy concerns, they end up having to resort to variations on “trust us, we have practices and policies in place to protect user information.” Most people have been willing to trust Google so far, but the danger of the “trust us” answer is that if you ever give people a reason not to trust you anymore, then they might quickly abandon you, because you haven’t given them a substantive explanation of why they should continue to trust you in the future.

    So after all that, I guess that what I was really saying in this post was that the search term banner ad caused me to lose a small amount of trust in Google—not enough to cancel my Gmail account, not enough to stop using Google Reader for my RSS feeds, not enough to stop using Google for some web searches, but still, a small amount of trust was lost. Since trust and credibility are essential to Google’s business, any loss of trust, no matter how small, is presumably of some concern to them. If my reaction is unique, then Google has nothing to worry about. If my reaction is shared by millions of other users who see similarly disturbing banner ads on sites that they visit, then that could eventually cause problems for Google.

  3. ng says:

    Thanks for the explanatins!

  4. wordnerd says:

    Big Brother Google is not an only child. Amazon (which also has a fairly benevolent reputation) is in the news for its magical deletion of books already purchased by its Kindle customers.

  5. dc says:

    Wordnerd: And not just any books—1984 itself!

    Back to Google, I’m rooted around a little more, and it sounds like Google takes steps to remove sensitive medical information from the data it keeps, so that’s one scenario which may be less of a concern than I thought. I’m still perplexed by how my search term ended up in a banner ad, since everything I’ve read implies that Google uses search terms to decide what text ads appear alongside search results, but that banner ads are served up based on more general criteria–geographical location, “interest categories,” and cookies that may have been installed on previous visits to sites.

    Obviously, I have little knowledge of how this stuff really works, and I may be misunderstanding something in a major way, but in a sense, that’s what worries me: Google has an enormous amount of expertise, enormous access to data, and enormous resources for analyzing that data, while the vast majority of its users don’t have the foggiest idea of how search and advertising and data analysis works on a technical level. That asymmetry pretty clearly gives Google opportunities for abuse or exploitation, if someone at the company ever decided to “be evil” after all…

  6. bethh says:

    If you use firefox, you can install an addon called CustomizeGoogle, which lets you control whether you see ads and lets you anonymize the cookies, among many other things. I highly recommend checking it out.

  7. dc says:

    bethh: Thanks! I do use firefox, and I will check out that addon. Google itself also has an “ad preferences” page where people can opt out of “interest categories.” I’ve always known that I could also refuse cookies altogether, but for now I’ve figured that the benefits of cookies outweigh the spookiness of knowing that my web habits are being tracked by various corporations. Maybe CustomizeGoogle is just what I’m looking for.

  8. really fricking upset says:

    I just saw an add for a poster selling website on e-baum’s world.com. The posters revolving through the add included nudes and a cutsey picture of a beagle. Last night I looked at some porn and the day before, I searched for beagles.

    I ALREADY HAVE THE GOOGLE OPT OUT. I HAD SIGNED OUT OF GMAIL during these searches.

    I’m fricking DONE with google. I don’t need google collecting information about my latest searches and giving it to websites to tailor make me creepy adds mixing two of my very incompatible, and slightly embarrassing interests.

    I am so angry, I feel like screaming.

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