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How Google's free tools make you pay
I don't know about you, but I can't get through a day without Google.
Whether it's Google Insights, Google AdWords, Google Ad Planner, Google Analytics, Google Website Optimizer, Google Docs or just the plain old Google search engine, Google's free tools have insidiously crept their way into my everyday working life, till I couldn't imagine life without them. Almost like a good man really.
But after realizing my dependency, I started getting concerned. Could I trust this Google/man knowing so much personal information about me? Here I am, nervous about putting personal information on Facebook or giving out my home number, and yet I've handed over my business details to Google on a silver platter!
Because make no mistake, these freebies are all data sharing tools.
Question: Why do you think it's worthwhile for Google to spend time, resources and millions of dollars developing these, then offer them to you free?
When you think of "free" you'd normally take it to mean you're not paying a monetary figure upfront. However, there's still an exchange and the ultimate outcome can see you paying way more than you realized!
Almost always, the agenda of the organization offering the free tool differs vastly from your agenda in using it.
Google's data-sharing ways are not a new debate. Ever since Google purchased and re-branded Urchin in 2005, stripped off the high end features and it became the freely available Google Analytics, there's been controversy surrounding whether all that data is used for good or evil (and whose).
Google Analytics captures clicks, page views, referring sites, and if you track conversions - your quantity of sales, when and where you get sales from, how much those sales are, what you pay for each sale.
That's a lot of sensitive information you're placing into Google's eager data-sharing hands.
If you're an advertiser with Google and you are giving them your sales information, that's even scarier - talk about a conflict of interest!
Online, Google could be cast in the role of a double agent. They possess a staggering amount of your information (whether you're using their advertising services or not), which is shared for the "greater good" of their users. If you're using some of Google's products, then you have probably accepted an agreement (you know the one that's always too tedious to read through) that allows Google to use the information they collect on your site. I don't think any of us are naive enough to believe that it's all for our own good.
Here's what Google have to say about data-sharing: "Shared data will be used to improve the services we provide you and will help create more powerful features for you to choose from. As they become available, only those who share their data with Google will gain access to these services and features."
Roughly translated, this means hand over your secrets and we'll let you play with our toys...
Google is NOT a charity. They are a flourishing business that netted $6 billion last year.
What are you giving away each time you use one of these "free" tools? How free is it if it allows Google to siphon away your prospective customers under the guise of better relevancy?
Google's Privacy Center states, "Google collects personal information when you register for a Google service or otherwise voluntarily provide such information. We may combine personal information collected from you with information from other Google services or third parties to provide a better user experience, including customizing content for you." (Hmm, bit vague do you think?)
HOW this data is shared is a million dollar question.
Let's take a step back for a minute. Google has become the search engine of choice with 72.11% US market share (as of February 2009 - reported by Hitwise), by offering relevant search results to their users. We've seen through quality score and other algorithmic changes that their focus is still largely on relevancy to their users.
To this end, in March 2009 Google implemented behavioral targeting so they could target the most relevant ads to their searchers, based on the massive bank of information they collect from - you guessed it - Google Analytics.
So let's get this straight. They combine behavioral targeting (personally scary in itself) with the data they freely collect on your business through Google Analytics to offer up more competitor options to increase their revenue.
Maybe I'm too young (I flatter myself) to be this cynical, but hands up who thinks this is a huge conflict of interests? If this were a friend, you'd consider it back-stabbing behavior.
Let's look at a practical example:
- You own a car audio business selling both through a physical outlet and an online store.
- You've been fostering good customer relationships with regular emails and customer loyalty discounts.
- Google records your customers visits to your site, they also know that your customer searched for an Alpine car audio system.
- Your customer looks for reviews and comparisons between a couple of Alpine models because they can't decide which one to order from you. Google's behavioral targeting picks this up.
- While they are browsing Google are throwing up AdSense ads for Alpine car audio systems and the customer is drawn away with Google's siren call to competitor web sites.
- Your competitor banks your money - you get zip.
From a consumer point of view this may be great. However for you, this is an obstacle course for your customer to give you their business, if in fact they even do now.
Right now you're probably seeing why long-term, you are actually "paying" for using Google's free tools, particularly Google Analytics. Instead of paying money upfront for the privilege of using Google Analytics, you are handing Google inside knowledge on how your online business runs. In the end, you lose.
The hand that feeds you is also feeding your competitors, and when the owner of that hand has access to confidential information on everyone, and has already solicited your consent to use it for their own purposes, you'd be right to be nervous.
Let's go back offline for a moment. Imagine if every credit card transaction you made, appointment that you made, every book, magazine, newspaper, that you read, every letter that you sent was known.
If you're using Google's other products eg. YouTube, AdWords, AdSense, etc, then they've got a surprisingly complete profile on you and your behavior. Oh and don't even get me started on Google Latitude that tracks your location everywhere, or Google Voice that intercepts your phone calls, I'm starting to look for my barcode.
Seriously, aliens don't need to kidnap anyone, they just need to infiltrate Google (and I don't know whether they exist or not, so please no one get me started on that debate).
If it was the Government that captured all that information on us, how okay would you be about that?
And for anyone that I still hear saying "but it's free Reena!" well, that certainly is the case and by the way, did I mention it's also stupidly easy to set-up? Google do know what they're doing...
If you're a new advertiser with a conservative starting budget, Google Analytics can seem like a godsend. What I'd like you to consider here and now, is how it impacts your business and whether taking this avoidable risk is worth the cost to you in the long-term.
I've previously had a tremendously helpful Google rep (God bless her) and she shared a lot of competitive "aggregated non-personal information" to help me along with spending more money on my Google advertising.
Perhaps it was the industry, but a dodo (flightless bird - extinct for a reason) could've put two and two together. I knew exactly which competitors she was subtly referring to (wink-wink) and wow, I was a child in a candy store, I had an edge!
Then we give each other a moochy air kiss on the cheek and she's off to her next meeting, I fancy sharing the goods and insider "aggregate" information with my competitor who's not a dodo either.
Austrian Professor Hermann Maurer has been studying the Google search engine since its birth in the nineties. Dr Maurer claims that if you don't "study the small print the person installing the software may miss a declaration that the information transferred through the server will be sent to Google. That means any customer using a company's website which runs Google Analytics is effectively passing details of their search path to Google without knowing."
Dr Maurer's study found that 83 percent of servers had Google Analytics installed. "That means even if you didn't use Gmail or Google search, by doing anything on the internet, four out of five servers automatically pass on every conversation a customer has with the server on to Google."
Another privacy study done by graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, found that Google was the most conspicuous tracker on third party sites. Here are some pretty eye-catching statistics:
- 81 of the top 100 sites used Google Analytics
- 70 of those same sites also contained DoubleClick cookies (advertising company owned by Google - another conflict of interest?)
- Google had a presence on 92 of the top 100 sites
One of the graduates, Mr Soltani, said, "I don't know that anyone has identified the scope and depth of the coverage that Google has across the Web in terms of tracking. Our data shows that even if you are not going to Google, if you are browsing the Web they are collecting data about you."
Here are some other concerns.
Privacy breach with third party cookies?
Quick lesson - A tracking cookie is a message from the web server to the web browser, where it's then stored. Cookies capture such things as IP addresses, user preferences, contact information, etc. First party cookies are stored on your server. Third party cookies are stored on a server outside your control, as is the case if you're using Google Analytics.
Bottom line, you are collecting information from users that you do not control the storage or use of, which presents a privacy issue. This is information that you truly may not want leaving your site.
Do you want to share your brand as well as your data?
Google Analytics terms of service state, "Unless You notify Google otherwise in writing, You hereby grant to Google and its wholly owned subsidiaries a limited license to use Your trade names, trademarks, service marks, logos, domain names and other distinctive brand features ("Brand Features") in presentations, marketing materials, customer lists, and financial reports."
How comfortable are you with handing over your brand? Most companies don't even give this much trust to their employees these days!
Limitation of liability
Google acknowledges the possibility of lost profits, although they will not be held liable. While disclaimers are common these days, few others have the sheer amount of dirt on you that Google does.
Google Analytics' limitation of liability says, "Google and its wholly owned subsidiaries will not be liable to user or any third-party claimant for any indirect, special, punitive, consequential (including, without limitation, lost profits or lost data collected through the service), or incidental damages, whether based on a claim or action of contract, warranty, negligence, strict liability, or other tort, breach of any statutory duty, indemnity or contribution, or otherwise, even if Google and/or its subsidiaries and affiliates has been advised of the possibility of such damages..."
Some final thoughts to ponder
Remember, as much as Google is a "tool" in the conducting or our businesses, Google is a business first and foremost. With the bundling of Google services, this puts them in an extraordinary position of power.
As Stan Lee coined (and Spider-Man then said) "With great power, there must also come great responsibility."
Whether Google can be trusted with this immense responsibility remains to be seen. Have they've already abused this power? Well this is open to interpretation. Certainly it seems to be a case of the fox guarding the henhouse.
The most important question is whether you are personally happy to freely hand over your information and your visitors' information, when the information is used to fuel your competitors' efforts and siphons money away from your business. Ultimately, you need to weigh this up for yourself - the upfront non-paid benefit of using Google Analytics versus the potential losses with the information you traded for the free tool, being used against you. It's certainly a risk you can avoid.
Feel free to comment on your own concerns with Google Analytics and share any alternative Analytics tools.
UPDATE: We've spoken with Matt from NetApplications who has offered a Free 30 day trial to test a "Google Free" method of advanced analytics. We're testing this service ourselves and we'll report back to you soon on the results.
In the meantime, you can sign up for a free trial too - check it out here.
Privacy concerns about Google Analytics
Google Analytics Terms of Service
Google Is Top Tracker of Surfers in Study
Global Search Market Share, July 2009 vs. July 2008
Photo Credits: diveofficer, dionhinchcliffe, Stefan Buddy, secretlondon123, diegodacal, clara, caitlinator, robad0b.
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