Stephen Logan

Google Paying to Watch Your Search Activity

13th Feb 2012 News, Industry News 3 minutes to read

Having indexed trillions of pages, Google has the world’s knowledge at its fingertips. However, there is a big difference between being able to access content and actually understanding, or indeed indexing it.

Like a library without a Dewey decimal system or a phonebook that uses neither the alphabet nor location as guidelines, this collective data is useless without order. So search engines use keywords and domain strength as a basic quality guideline. However, even when combined with 200+ ranking factors, results still aren’t perfect.

Some of the more invasive techniques employed by Google have raised privacy concerns. This includes storing previous searches to provide personalised results and using click through data for indexing purposes. Is nothing sacred?

Screenwise – Bribery or Marketing Research?

Anyway, now Google appear to be pushing the boundaries even further, asking searchers to allow the search engine to spy on their activity. For the price of a $25 Amazon gift voucher, Google Screenwise will peer over your shoulder as you go about your online business; presumably extracting a lot of juicy information about user habits. The horror!

This entirely optional, opt-in only service appears to have created quite a stink in the last few days, but why?

Google results are generally okay, certainly better than a few years ago. However, there is still a lot that the company needs to learn when it comes to understanding user intention. The more it can do to get to grips with what we’re all looking for, the more effective it should become at delivering this for every query.

Growing Privacy Concerns

Invariably there will be fears about the great eye in the sky that Google has become, but that’s the price we pay for demanding ever-improving results. It’s also easy to forget that Google is now predominantly an advertising platform, certainly where revenue is involved, with search used as the primary method of attracting users. However, if it loses search share, it also misses out on billions of dollars worth of PPC clicks. So the onus is on them to continually improve.

As mentioned at the outset, all search engines have access to more information than you’d find in any library. From the obvious to the obscure, everything that has ever been committed to the Internet (without crawling restrictions) has been gobbled up by Google. The current method of defining rankings, which essentially involves a lot of mathematical equations and assumptions, serves a purpose. But to be able to deliver answers on demand and with greater accuracy, refinement is needed.

Part of Search Evolution

As with most other modern businesses, Google appear to favour market testing with human users. Experts and equations will only ever tell you so much, which is why search engines need to employ an increasingly varied and user-centric range of data sources. Those who put a high price on their privacy are understandably concerned about where and how their data is used, whilst the rest of us carry on regardless – feeding Google with ever-increasing levels of information.

Whilst the timing of this little bit of market research isn’t particularly ideal, it’s perhaps not the abomination that some have claimed. If users don’t care about what Google sees, then why not profit from it? Without even having to do a thing (apart from filling in a few forms) you can earn up to $25. Sure, a faceless corporation will then have access to where you’ve been, what you searched for and how long you stayed; but if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you’ve also got nothing to worry about.

So what do you think, is Google pushing user-data too far? Do they need to monitor what we look at in order to improve search results and targeting for advertisers? Is this enough to make you start using alternative search engines? Are you overcome with a feeling of complete ambivalence? Maybe you even think that it is a good idea, helping to improve the service for the greater good? As always, any comments and viewpoints are welcome.

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