As every tech journalist is well aware, Google yesterday put its new unified privacy policies into effect. Whether consumers cared as much as tech writers and bloggers desperately want them to care is another matter altogether. The Web was alive with how-to articles for unplugging your identity from Google.
The L.A. Times tech section was among those publishing hide-from-Google guides, and it sent Big G a series of queries that the company answered in the usual hazy corporatespeak of public companies forever covering their butts. One response was especially telling, however. Google’s standard line about unifying privacy policies is rationalized as part of the company’s effort to provide better and more personalized services. And so LATimes.com quite understandably asked what should be the obvious question: “When will I start to see the results of the policy changes?”
To which the corporate voice said: "In the coming weeks. We don’t have any specific features to announce right now, but over time we’ll be able to improve our products in ways that help our users get the most from the web."
Go to the Google blog and you will find pretty much the same wording. But there is one example of how Google will be a better universe in which to work.
“So in the future, if you do frequent searches for Jamie Oliver, we could recommend Jamie Oliver videos when you’re looking for recipes on YouTube -- or we might suggest ads for his cookbooks when you’re on other Google properties.”
What the hell? Really? That is it? My search history will help push different YouTube videos to the fore?
This is a missed opportunity on a grand scale. Perhaps to its chagrin, Google has succeeded in attracting more attention to the ins and outs of its data-collecting practices than any single company so far by announcing the unification of its privacy policies. But then again, it doesn’t take too much to "alert the media" on anything involving these issues. This is the story that has been writing itself for a decade now. That someone in this company didn’t see this as the best opportunity ever for outlining how interwoven data can be put to the service of consumers is just bizarre. There is a real lapse of industry leadership here.
As we outlined at last week’s OMMA Data & Behavioral conference, the field of targeting and tracking gets exciting again when we move beyond discussing how consumers get tagged and followed. When we start showing the ways in which cross-referencing data sets (responsibly managed, to be sure) builds smart profiles that fuel new products, then you aren’t talking just privacy anymore. You are talking about how data drives innovations that can help people.
Where are the Google geniuses when we need them to be genius-like?
To demonstrate how building a shopping list in Google Docs could inform (if you choose) a map of local grocery stores with best prices, perhaps even telling you which store will give you the lowest overall spend for your total order? And have it available on your phone?
To show how a full profile will personalize smartphone mapping, so calling up your location will highlight the stuff you might most be interested in?
To leverage my tastes from Google Music library, YouTube viewings and Google TV to create an alert service of upcoming releases from my favorite entertainers?
Okay -- I may be no data genius myself. I am sure there are much better examples of how data are already being combined and rendered into creative products. CNN’s Zite and Flipboard are good instances of my data and social graph being put to good use -- I can see that. But I don’t have thousands of designers, marketers and comp sci grads on the payroll who get free gourmet lunches and all the Red Bull they can drink in my employ. Google does -- and at least one of them had to be able to come up with something a bit more compelling than “Jamie Oliver videos.”
But my point is that Google missed making its own point. It is at the point when a company collects data from you that it should by reflex tell you how it plans to make your life better by knowing this stuff. And when it comes to a master database like Google that touches me in so many ways, that bar is especially high. When I go into my unified profile (which is not so “unified,” really) in the Dashboard, I see more than 20 places where the company is engorging significant data from me, from stored images on Picasa to YouTube to Google TV interactions, Android Marketplace, My Reader subs, Google Music library, my iGoogle Gadgets, etc.
Google doesn’t just owe its users an explanation about how it uses our data. The most successful digital company in history owes us some imagination. It owes us time spent envisioning where data helps consumers, whether it makes everyday searches more efficient or it actually suggests new products I might be willing to test. Google needs to promise us more than a vague intent to improve products.
This sort of perfunctory wave of the corporate hand only raises greater suspicion, making consumers rightly feel that being tracked is small potatoes compared to what really is going on here. The customer is being co-opted and used, not served. If you offer consumers a vision of where this world of mashed-up information brings us, then you can recruit them to opt into it and become a collaborator in a coming Data Age. That's what leadership would look like.