I don’t want to discuss the merits of the particular data retention issue. I want to discuss a potential shift that’s happening around perceptions and privacy. I’ll start with “click fraud.”
When click fraud emerged as a regular press issue in early 2006 the response of the search engines was a relatively casual “trust us, we’re doing all we can to combat the problem.” After more than a year of articles in newspapers and business magazines, class action litigation and the emergence of a cottage industry that has an interest in hyping click fraud, the engines got wise and started doing something more “transparent” and proactive. In August of last year they formed a working group with the IAB to address the issue and, more recently, Yahoo! appointed a click quality czar — a great move that was overdue.
Click fraud and the way it became a PR problem for the engines — not that it has gone away — holds some lessons for handling the resurgent question of privacy now, and Google in particular. The issue of privacy is not limited to Google of course or to search. But Google is the most visible search engine and doing the most things right now that have perceived privacy implications:
The general public may be largely unaware of the privacy debate going on right now, but there’s an emerging danger here for Google. That danger is that favorable public sentiment toward the engine changes and people become fearful of Google. What might be called “Googlephobia” has been on the rise among some people who believe the company is now too powerful. That power is also tied in to the privacy issue.
Let’s segment the public into three groups: insiders, influencers and everyone else. Let’s say that everyone who reads this blog qualifies as an “insider” (the earliest adopters). The colleagues we speak with on a regular basis but who don’t work in the Internet are the “influencers.” For example, I have a friend who is the head of a division of Wells Fargo who’s more savvy about technology but isn’t as close to the news as I am. Then there’s everyone else (for convenience’s sake).
Google rose to its mythic success on the heels of a better algorithm, positive buzz from insiders and early adopters and some lucky breaks (adoption by Yahoo! is one). Notwithstanding the findings of the recent InfoSpace/Dogpile search “overlap” study, the major search engines all do a good job of finding relevant results and deliver a generally good experience.
Part of what sustains Google’s leadership position is its brand strength and the good will of users. If Google’s reputation changes or the perception of the company sours then it has a major problem on its hands. And this is where I think Google is most vulnerable today, both on its own and competitively.
Ask’s UK-based “information underground” campaign (scroll for video) has a vaguely Orwellian implication: that it’s dangerous for one company to “control the Web’s information.” The not-so-subtext is that Google is Big Brother. While that may seem hyperbolic, some people are starting to feel that way.
I’ve had a number of conversations with friends who don’t work in the Internet but are fairly informed and who are using Google but have a less “warm and fuzzy” feeling about the company than they used to. If the general public starts to feel that Google is a big, scary company that is tracking them – whether or not that’s a rational perception — it could cause people to look for alternatives.
I believe that many Google insiders don’t see this issue or danger clearly because they’re immersed in the Google culture, which is fun and progressive. So what can or should Google do?
As it did with the EU, the company should go an extra mile/kilometer to address privacy concerns early and quickly. It shouldn’t take the opaque “trust us” position it did initially with click fraud. Google must be extremely transparent and explicit with users about its privacy protections and the controls it offers them. It’s not clear to me that “everyone else” has any understanding of what’s on this page.
I could be wrong about all this of course. . . but the next Google could emerge not by providing more relevant results, but by offering a comparable experience and more assurances to users about security and privacy.
Greg Sterling is the founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting and research firm focused on online consumer and advertiser behavior and the relationship between the Internet and traditional media, with an emphasis on the local marketplace.