The web has lit up about Google's updated privacy policy, and (shockingly) not all the feedback is super positive. Privacy on the internet has been a hot topic these days, especially considering Facebook's ever-changing levels of users' control over their information. European lawmakers are also introducing the "right to be forgotten," which would let users petition to have personal information on the internet removed. And the debate may rage further with HR 1981, a new bill introduced by Senator Lamar Smith -- the man who introduced the now defunct SOPA bill -- that will allow ISPs to track your financial dealings online and require them to store that information for 18 months, eliminating the need for government subpoenas of your private information.

So what's all the hulabaloo around Google's privacy updates? There's a lot of misinformation circling out there despite Google's attempts to clear the air, so let's break down what exactly Google has done with users' information, why there is so much controversy around the privacy changes, and what marketers can learn about privacy, user data and information, and mitigating controversy from what has become a mildly dramatic news story.

What You Need to Know About the Google Privacy Updates

So what exactly did Google do? Well, because it has so many different products and features, Google had over 60 different privacy policies. So to clean things up a bit, Google decided to release a new privacy policy that condensed all of those individual policies into one shorter, easier to read document that will take effect on March 1, 2012. In the policy, Google explains what information they collect and why, how that information is used, how to access and update your information, and with whom that information is shared. Here's a synopsis of what the new policy says, which you can read in full on Google's Policies & Principles page.

  • The Information Google Collects: Google collects information in two ways. Either you give it to them when you sign up for a Google Account -- like your name, email address, telephone number, or credit card number -- or Google collects it when you use their services -- like the websites you visit, how you interact with ads, the device you're using, where you're located, and search queries you've entered. You can view the full list of information they collect here.
  • How Google Uses That Information: The information Google collects is used to improve its products and services and deliver more relevant content. For example, Google may tailor search results and ads, record communications with Google to help contextualize future conversations, or record your language preferences for a consistent user experience across all products.
  • How to Access That Information: You can review and update your personal information by controlling the type of information tied to your Google Account, editing your ad preferences, adjusting how your Google Profile appears to others, controlling with whom you share information, removing your information from Google services, and setting your browser to block all cookies associated with Google services.
  • Who Sees That Information: Most people have to give Google consent to share your information with anyone outside of Google. The exceptions are if your Google Account is managed for you by a domain administrator like Google Apps, or if there are legal reasons your information must be shared with a third party. When Google uses affiliates or business partners to process information, they will have access to your data but must comply with Google's Privacy Policy.

Why Is There Controversy?

Whether this comes as a surprise to you or sounds like pretty standard stuff, I think the controversy stems from three feelings.

1.) Once Burned, Twice Shy - In the ongoing controversy around online privacy, Facebook is often cited as an offender because of its habit of quietly changing privacy settings, opting people into less private settings that makes pieces of profile information suddenly public, and then forcing users to navigate a less-than-intuitive interface to regain control of their privacy. When you combine this history with a Google user base in the hundreds of millions -- not all of whom understand the intricacies of cookies, IP addresses, and server logs -- the worst case scenario is bound to be assumed. Congress even wrote a letter to Google asking the company for further clarification on its collection and usage of private information, and the security measures Google has in place to ensure that information is securely encrypted.

2.) It Is Kind of Creepy - Sure, it's not like Google is collecting any information about us that it didn't already know. Google just did a better job explaining it with this new, concise, and jargon-free privacy policy, and they are going to use the information more effectively to ensure a consistent user experience across all Google products and services. But to some people, the extent of Google's insight into our lives is just plain creepy, and the big brother potential gets imaginations going. Google even released a video speculating this new use of information across multiple products and services "may even mean we'll be able to tell you when you'll be late for a meeting."

Bottom line is, more people get how their information is collected and used that might not have understood it before. While some people see this as something that will make their online lives more efficient and personalized, others interpret it as just plain creepy.

3.) Having Control Over Your Privacy Is a Stretch - Google is publicizing this privacy update as one that gives you more control over what information you share, and what information you keep private. But the truth is the only way to fully opt out of sharing your information isn't a viable option at all -- because you have to stop using Google and its products almost entirely. It's a fair clause; you have to agree to the privacy policies of the other companies with which you do business. But when your product or service is an integral part of the everyday lives of millions (if not billions) of people, opting out is a reach, making personal privacy a myth.

What Marketers Can Learn From Google's Approach

Whether you think the privacy update is no big deal or the beginning of the end of privacy on the internet, there are some lessons marketers can learn from the privacy controversy Google is navigating.

  • Google had until February 16th to respond to Congress' letter of concern, but it had its ducks in a row and got back to them immediately. Google understood that the sooner questions are answered, the sooner we can all move on to another controversy.
  • Google's reliance on valuable user data is just like ours. The lead intelligence marketers gather based on visitor site behaviors is a crucial part of lead nurturing success, and contributes directly to our bottom line. It would be foolish not to use the information you have about your users to improve their experience with your product or service.
  • Google knew this change would face some criticism, but it mitigated backlash by being extremely clear and public about the updates. Along with email communication about the change, every time I use a Google product or service, I see this:
google privacy policy

So instead of hiding its changes like Facebook did, Google took the time to make these changes visible across all of its products, and provided more than a month's notice before the changes go live so any questions can be answered and concerns alleviated.

  • Google used different content formats to make this information more easily palatable. It created an FAQ for those who don't have time to read Google's entire privacy policy (short as it may be), a glossary for those who don't understand some of the little jargon it used in the new document, and even created a video that explains the changes and the benefits it provides the user.

Finally, a consistent and convenient user experience is something all businesses should strive for. From your website, to your product or service, to your messaging and communications, your prospects and customers should feel like less of a number, and more of a person. If we're in an age where information is everywhere, what level of privacy do users expect? And how much are they willing to sacrifice a great user experience for control over their personal information? I suspect as with most updates of this nature, the controversy will die down once users realize that not only will Google move forward with these updates, but Google is too intricately tied into their day-to-day lives to extricate themselves from usage.

Do you think Google's privacy update means something dangerous for the state of privacy on the internet?

Image credit: Sean MacEntee


Originally published Feb 1, 2012 4:03:00 PM, updated July 28 2017


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