Google’s challenge–it comes down to trust

By March 23, 2012Google

There is an excellent post on Gizmodo today which describes Google’s competitive challenges and describes why their responses have been problematic. In the end it comes down to trust. In the early days we trusted Google because they said they weren’t evil, they seemed to back that up by acting in our interest, and (crucially) the data we were trusting then with wasn’t that significant. Fast forward to 2012 and Google is asking for much more trust so they can deliver a more personalised service but has undermined our trust by not being straight with us on a number of occasions.

In the late 1990s the search challenge was to direct us to the most relevant web page, and our expectations were relatively low. Now it is getting more difficult. Gizmodo describes Google’s future search challenge thus:

Picture this scenario. You are about to leave San Francisco to drive to Lake Tahoe for a weekend of skiing, so you fire up your Android handset and ask it "what’s the best restaurant between here and Lake Tahoe?"

It’s an incredibly complex and subjective query. But Google wants to be able to answer it anyway. (This was an actual example given to me by Google.) To provide one, it needs to know things about you. A lot of things. A staggering number of things.

To start with, it needs to know where you are. Then there is the question of your route—are you taking 80 up to the north side of the lake, or will you take 50 and the southern route? It needs to know what you like. So it will look to the restaurants you’ve frequented in the past and what you’ve thought of them. It may want to know who is in the car with you—your vegan roommates?—and see their dining and review history as well. It would be helpful to see what kind of restaurants you’ve sought out before. It may look at your Web browsing habits to see what kind of sites you frequent. It wants to know which places your wider circle of friends have recommended. But of course, similar tastes may not mean similar budgets, so it could need to take a look at your spending history. It may look to the types of instructional cooking videos you’ve viewed or the recipes found in your browsing history.

In other words they need access to some of our most private information – where we’ve been and what we like. The problem for Google is that this information is tied up and inaccessible inside Facebook, Foursquare and other semi-walled gardens. Google’s response has been to try and get the data. They built Google+ and now they are trying to force us to use it. Their fear of Facebook and Apple has led them to undermine our trust by putting themselves first and filling our search results pages with Google+ and other Google products which are inferior to the competition. Then to make matters worse they were shown up as liars when they were called out for a series of bad behaviours:

I can’t see them regaining the trust they had before. Whereas once they seemed to be a genuinely different sort of company those days are over. Going forward they will be expected to act in their own interests and not ours. The million dollar question (probably more like a $100bn question) is whether their personalised search products will be good enough that we all decide to let them have our personal data even though we don’t trust them. That same question also applies to Apple and Facebook.

  • dang1

    I still like Google alot. I understand that if I want the convenience that Google’s services offer, I have to tell them a lot of information about me. I do feel though that Google is doing a good job, even if sometimes it has missteps. It’s the competition with Facebook and Microsoft that compels the companies to improve. I don’t use anything Apple so I don’t pay attention to that company.

  • When it comes down to it I think many people will come to a similar conclusion.

  • Atul Monga

    Very well made points and agree with all of them.

    Personally, I think Google accessing my private information so that my search results are appropriate is not a bad thing. However, as a user, I should be allowed to decide what might be accessible to Google for it to spew out the right results for me and that is where the challenge is.

    The problem is that people have a public persona and a private persona. It is going to be Google’s inability to distinguish between these two that is likely to be a problem for most people. The beauty about Facebook, Foursquare, Google+ etc. is that they pretty much represent our public personas so damage could be limited. Hence Google’s desperation to access those.

    A search engine on the other hand has the ability to capture both our public and private acitivities, e.g. search queries for “private” objects and services. Even before this debate started, we’ve always had cookies in our browsers to deal with. How many of us switch to private browsing or delete cookies so as not to influence future searches!

  • All these services mix public and private data to a greater or lesser extent and I think you are right that it is the mixing of the two which troubles people. Google suffers from that problem more than most.

  • Lee Morgenroth

    Great bullet list of Google’s mis-steps. I really helps to highlight the problem.

    I also wonder about the real value of these “more personalized services”. I hear a lot of claims about benefits we may get from giving up our data and our privacy, but personally I haven’t experienced much benefit or I’m not aware of it. When these same companies ignore or avoid the privacy and trust issues when making their claims, it just makes me more skeptical.

    I once asked Sheryl Sandberg publicly about how they manage the potential conflict of interest between Facebook’s advertisers desire for more data and Facebook’s users’ potential ignorance of what is being tracked & collected. Sadly I didn’t get an answer.

    Perhaps the rapid growth of DuckDuckGo (a privacy protecting search engine) is a sign that there is a growing market for online services that don’t require us to sacrifice our privacy. 

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