Can Google Know Too Much?

afraid_of_google As the web search giant grows, some critics say it could be too economically powerful — and invade people’s privacy.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Google’s increasing dominance of Internet search and advertising is the rising fear, justified or not, that Google’s broadening reach is giving it unchecked power.

This scrutiny goes deeper than the skeptical eye that lawmakers and the Justice Department have given to Google’s proposed ad partnership with Yahoo Inc. Many objections to that deal are financial, and surround whether Google and Yahoo could unfairly drive up online ad prices.

A bigger long-term concern for Google could be criticisms over something less tangible — privacy. Increasingly, as Google burrows deeper into everyday computing, its product announcements are prompting questions about its ability to gather more potentially sensitive personal information from users.

Why does Google log the details of search queries for so long? What does it do with the information? Does it combine data from the search engine with information it collects through other avenues — such as its recently released Web browser, Chrome?

Data gathered through most of the company’s services ”disappears into a black hole once it hits the Googleplex, it’s impossible to track that information.

Google — whose corporate motto is ”Don’t Be Evil” — generally sees such concerns as misinformed. For instance, the company says it stores the queries made through its popular search engine primarily so it can improve the service.

But whether the criticisms are valid or not, they are likely indicative of the battles Google will face as it, like Microsoft Corp. in the 1990s, moves from world-wowing startup to the heart of the technology establishment.

The September release of Chrome illuminated the budding conflicts.

To Google, the new browser is a platform on which future Web-based software applications might run most efficiently. It also is a sign that Google understands its growing power, since launching a browser is a direct challenge to Microsoft.

In other circles, Chrome provoked suspicion. One group, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Consumer Watchdog, argues that the browser crosses a new line.

In a mid-October letter to Google directors, Consumer Watchdog said it had ”serious privacy concerns” about the browser and the transfer of users’ data through Google’s services without giving people what it sees as “appropriate transparency and control.”

One of Consumer Watchdog’s complaints surrounds Chrome’s navigation bar, which can be used to enter a Web site address or a search query. The group points out that as users type in the navigation bar, Chrome relays their keystrokes to Google even before they click ”Enter” to finalize the command.

The company is literally having this unnoticed conversation with itself about you and your information,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said.

This ”conversation” stems from the ”Google Suggest” feature, which is built into the browser and other Google products, including its basic Internet search engine.

”Google Suggest” sends Google searches as you type, in hopes of anticipating your desires. So if you’re keying in ”Electoral College 2008 election,” Google will offer multiple search queries. First you’d be given results related to the term ”electoral,” then ones on the Electoral College in general, and finally you’d get links pertaining to November 4th’s presidential vote.

This is what worries Consumer Watchdog: Say you key in something that could be embarrassing or deeply personal, but reconsider before you press ”Enter.” The autosuggest feature still sends this phrase to Google’s servers, tied to your computer’s numeric Internet Protocol (IP) address.

Brian Rakowski, the product manager for Chrome, said Consumer Watchdog’s fears stemmed from confusion about the role a Google Web browser plays.

There was some concern that, given a very naive way of how browsers work, you may think, `Now I’m using a Google browser — Google must know everything on their servers about me,” he said.

Although Chrome is new, Consumer Watchdog is not waiting to see whether it gets too little use to worry about. In October, Court’s group wrote U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to caution him about Google’s plans to sell ads for Yahoo, saying that its fears about Google’s market power have been exacerbated by Chrome’s release. Of course, this deal has subsequently been abandoned as the parties realized it would never pass DOJ.

It’s about having a monopoly over our personal information, which, if it falls into the wrong hands, could be used in a very dangerous way against us,” Court said.

Monitoring Your Reputation Online

The easiest and most reliable way to monitor your company’s brand online is with RSS alerts from the major blog search engines. We like Technorati.com, Google Blog Search, BlogPulse.com, and Sphere.com. There will be a fair amount of overlap since they will catch many of the same blog posts, but we’re always surprised at how often one will catch a story the others have missed.

Each has a feature where you can search for a keyword such as your business or personal name and subscribe to the results returned. Typically a little RSS button will appear next to the search results and clicking it will automatically insert the RSS feed for that search into the RSS reader of your choice.

Google Alerts can also play an important role in your online reputation management. This is a free service which tracks changes to the Google search results for a given keyword. You can also configure it to track changes in Google News, Google Blog Search, and Google Groups.

  • A ‘News’ alert will track changes to the top ten results for your keyword in Google News search.
  • A ‘Web’ alert will track changes to the top twenty results for your keyword in Google Web search.
  • A ‘Blogs’ alert will track changes to the top ten results for your keyword in Google Blog search.
  • A ‘Groups’ alert will track changes to the top fifty results for your keyword in Google Groups search.
  • A ‘Comprehensive’ alert will combine all the above changes into a single email.

Online, Reputation is everything!

A wise man once said, “Steal my money and I can earn more, but let no man steal my good name.

In today’s world where anyone or anything can be easily “Googled”, hard earned success can be wiped out overnight if companies fail to actively manage their reputation. After all, online, we “are” what people say we are!

Stay Reputable!

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2 Responses to Can Google Know Too Much?

  1. Sue Massey says:

    Great post. I will read your posts frequently. Added you to the RSS reader.

  2. reputation management

    Can Google Know Too Much? | ReputationDR Weblog

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