What Personalization, Privacy And Competition Mean For Google’s Future

As previously reported, Google has expanded its field trial for Gmail results on web search results pages. Now, it includes Google Drive and Google Content (though you have to actually sign up for the...
What Personalization, Privacy And Competition Mean For Google’s Future
Written by Chris Crum
  • As previously reported, Google has expanded its field trial for Gmail results on web search results pages. Now, it includes Google Drive and Google Content (though you have to actually sign up for the new field trial to get these features). While these aren’t yet features that are available to all users, they are the latest sign of Google’s move to a more unified Google experience across its products.

    Today, many people think about Google as a search engine, with YouTube as a separate site for videos, Google+ as a social networking destination, Google Docs/Drive as a product for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations, Picasa Web Albums as a place to keep photos, Gmail as a place for email, etc. It makes sense. Each of these products have specific things they do. However, Google doesn’t want you to necessarily think of these things as separate products. They want you to think of them as useful features of Google. One big, great Google experience that can meet all of your online needs.

    Privacy, Integration and Personalization

    Earlier this year, Google made significant changes to its privacy policies, essentially consolidating them into one main one for this very purpose – so they can use your data across products. It just so happens that these changes are currently under fire for European authorities, but they have already been implemented, and it remains to be seen whether Google will make changes to appease the EU.

    With the new field trial, not only can you access Gmail, Google Drive and Google Calendar content from web search results, you can do so from Gmail results. Google is not only unifying its products, it’s unifying the search experience to some extent. How long before you can access content from any of Google’s products from the search box on another of its products. How long before you can find YouTube videos from a Google Docs search or Google+ results from a YouTube search? Picasa Web Albums content from a Gmail search?

    Google has made other changes over the last couple weeks that fit into this line of thinking. For example, Google is now letting you see user reviews of local businesses from people’s Google Profiles. Google launched a familiar navigation system on its mobile homepage, reflecting the desktop version, which easily gets users to various Google products, as if they were simply features of Google.

    Meanwhile, Google is already finding ways to improve search features of its various products. In recent months, we’ve seen Google launch updates to Gmail search. Just this week, Google made one to Google Drive search, enabling you to access menu functionality right from the search box.

    While Google continues to integrate its various products with one another, it also continues to shut down numerous services. In some cases, these products just go away. In others, certain key functionalities go on to appear in other existing Google products. As giant as Google is, it has been slimming down and becoming more simplified little by little ever since Larry Page took over as CEO.

    The Filter Bubble

    The side effects of all of this simplification and integration are interesting. Alternative search engine DuckDuckGo highlighted one of them in a new video. That would be the “filter bubble“. Google, with its ability to use your data from product to product, is finding more ways to personalize your search experience. This new Gmail/Google Drive integration into web search results is a prime example. You’re seeing more content that is specific to you. Nobody else will get these search results.

    DuckDuckGo’s whole point is that by personalizing the search experience to each user, Google is limiting access to information outside of this personalized bubble. You may never see results that other people are seeing, which could bring new perspective to whatever it is that you are searching for. They make the specific point of mentioning politically charged queries. The thinking is that you’ll never see the opposing viewpoints if you keep seeing results tailored to your existing biases.


    There are three major themes that continue to dominate the conversation around Google’s strategy, and they’re all directly related: personalization, privacy and competition. The personalization (at least to some degree) is directly affected by the privacy policy, which is needed for Google to better compete against its rivals. Google has flat out said as much.

    “Users are accustomed to their products working together, and expect this consistent experience across their Google Account,” the company wrote in a letter to the French data protection authority, the CNIL, which is leading the EU’s assault on Google’s privacy policy. “The use of a primary privacy policy that covers many products and enables the sharing of data between them is an industry standard approach adopted by companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo! and Apple.”

    These, in addition to Amazon, are Google’s chief rivals. Meanwhile, these rivals continue to make moves that position them to better compete with Google. Interestingly enough, this is all shaking out at a time when Google faces antitrust battles with the EU and the FTC. Any regulation that may arise from these could severely hinder Google’s progress in the unification of its features at a time when such unification is at its most critical from a competitive standpoint.

    Two of those competitors – Apple and Yahoo – just made significant hires that should enable them to compete at an even higher level against Google. Apple just got a major search player to lead its Siri unit, and Yahoo, now run by an historically critical Googler – Marissa Mayer – just took away Google’s President of Media, Mobile and Platforms Worldwide (not to mention other Googlers she’s managed to lure away in her short time at the company). How many more Googlers will follow Mayer over to Yahoo, which has been competing with Google since Google was launched?

    While all this is going on, Facebook, which has also managed to poach a number of Googlers of its own, is working on a search product (led by a former Googler of course).

    Colorado congressman Jarid Polis, a tech entrepreneur himself, has come out against any antitrust regulation of Google. In a letter to the FTC, he wrote, “While Google is surely a big company and an important service in people’s lives, my constituents also use a variety of competing services, including Amazon.com for shopping, iTunes for music and movies, Facebook for social networking and recommendations, and mobile apps like Yelp for finding local businesses. Competition is only a click away and there are no barriers to competition; if I created a better search algorithm I could set up a server in my garage and compete globally with Google. To even discuss applying anti-trust in this kind of hyper-competitive environment defies all logic and the very underpinnings of anti-trust law itself.”

    He’s absolutely right about being able to start his own search engine if he wanted to. DuckDuckGo has done it, and from what I understand, has managed to gain a modest user base in a space many felt it was impossible to penetrate. It’s not a major player in search, but it’s a player nonetheless, and people can use it if they want. Some do.

    It’s not these smaller players that Google must contend with, however. At least not for the foreseeable future. It’s the big players that both Google and Polis mentioned – the players like Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Yahoo. The players that have a lot of money to throw around on new products and services, as well as marketing. Antitrust and even privacy policy restrictions placed on Google could disrupt Google’s ability to make changes it needs to make to stay relevant and compete with these other giants (Facebook, by the way, is the top global brand, according to a new report from General Sentiment). Apple products, in case you haven’t heard, are pretty popular too. Especially the mobile ones (where Facebook use happens to be growing like a weed, not to mention that increased integration with Facebook that Apple’s mobile operating system has introduced with its latest update – an update that also reduced user exposure to Google through its Maps offering).

    The point is, that as hard as it is to imagine Google going away, other companies have been on top in the past, and have slid down considerably. Microsoft was obviously dealt a huge blow by antitrust regulation years ago, which some would say it has still not fully recovered from. As Polis said in his letter, “Several years ago, we called firms like AOL, MySpace and Yahoo ‘dominant’ — but those firms have struggled to retain consumers online. Given how easily consumers can switch to a new service with just one click, regulators should be wary of intervening in the tremendous competition online.”

    For all of the outcry from competitors over Google’s business practices, and the scrutiny from authorities, it’s stil not clear how much consumers actually believe they are being hurt by Google’s dominance on the Internet, or by their recently updated privacy policy. Personalization? The jury’s still out on that one too.

    What do you think?

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