Guest Opinion: Is Google’s Privacy Move Really An Anti-Competitive Practice?

Fresh on the heels of a free pass from a befuddled congress after admitting that they are a monopoly, Google’s decision to cloak search query strings under the guise of privacy makes it clear they are doubling down on their abusive, anti-competitive practices.

Consider the following points:

  1. Cloaking the referrer and the query string it contains severely hampers publishers and competing ad networks’ ability to monetize site traffic while Google gets to keep all the data and use it to target. The Google display network already had an enormous advantage over competitors. Google is using their monopoly position in search to further an unfair competitive advantage in display.
  2. The lack of query data reduces the value of the page view to the publisher. Regardless of the monetization strategy, losing query data has immediate and long-term impacts on the publisher’s ability to make money and to improve their content.
  3. Hiding the referrer of the visitor alters the fundamental operating agreement that has been in place between user and content generators, especially for ad supported content provides. Users have shown they don’t want to pay for content directly, so an entire ecosystem has been built around monetizing their “eyeballs” and their intent.
  4. Reducing the value per page view in a small amount does enormous damage to the ecosystem. Content producers both large and small operate on thin margins and changes in the revenue per page view changes those calculations. Sadly, while Google crushes the competition, they only make pennies for every dollar of value they destroy.

It is complete hypocrisy.

  • Google has been leading the charge towards personalization of search results for more than four years, but they have effectively made it impossible to personalize the landing page or the ads on the page to match the search intent of the user. Unless, of course, you are using Google’s ad network to monetize.
  • Remember Admob’s howls of protest about how Apple was effectively barring third party ad networks from IOS by restricting the usage data the app can collect and return to ad vendors? Why is this any different than blocking query strings?
  • Google+ has made it clear that they want real names and they strive to become the trust, reputation and identity hub of the Web. At bare minimum, Google is striving to significantly improve its understanding of who we are, what we believe and what are interests are. Amazingly, they are going to collect all this information while hiding everything about us from the sites we choose to visit.

    NOTE: After this was published, Google expressed a concern to Search Engine Land that it wasn’t “hiding all information,” which the editors passed on to me.

    To be fair, or at least precise, Google will continue to provide a referrer along with the logged in visitor but are removing the query string for that particular visit.

    While the query string and the referrer header are not the same thing, for a publisher, an ad server or a search marketer the query string is the most valuable piece of information in the referrer data.

    Of course most visits are from non-logged in users, so they still contain keyword data, at least for now.

Take a minute to bathe in the sea of “reassuring” statistics about how this will only affect 1-2% of searches (currently conducted in https) or perhaps 10-12% (searches by logged in users). Google is doing a full court PR press telling people that this won’t be too painful because we are only screwing you 10% of the time; what will they say when it hits 20% or 50%?

They don’t care because they expect webmasters not to notice as the water boils and competing ad networks to evaporate and hey, they are a monopoly and we are powerless to stop them. They certainly don’t care if a few sites disappear in the process because Google doesn’t see an ecosystem; they see an infinite number of sites that want their traffic.

Queue the usual argument about how publishers can opt out of Google traffic (even though they admittedly have a monopoly on search). This is, of course, complete BS. Google is telling us (again), that if we don’t like their rules we can go home; they are the dungeon masters and it is their dungeon.

Is “Privacy” The Real Deal?

OK, so lets talk about privacy. Online privacy is an important issue, one that always ranks near the top, just below convenience and stuff being free. If these changes were really about privacy or even resulted in improved privacy for users, Google might be forgiven for making this trade off against the interests of site owners.

It turns out that Google doesn’t even actually claim this is an attempt to improve user privacy, as Danny Sullivan pointed out. Google’s actual statement is that this move is designed to protect the privacy of the search result.

Remember when Google attacked Microsoft for copying search results and it turned out they were capturing click stream data? What Google is protecting under the guise of “privacy” is competitive intelligence.

If we assume that Google has the right to hide query strings from advertising networks and ISPs, the simplest approach would be to simply require site owners to switch to https for secure queries if they wanted to capture the query data in analytics. This would lead to significantly improved privacy and security for users without damaging content producers.

Google has already won the search advertising battle with an effective monopoly in the US and an absolute monopoly in many other countries.

The next front is in display, and cloaking the query is yet another step in leveraging their search monopoly to gain an unfair competitive advantage over other ad networks.

As Joost DeValk points out, Google is really hiding query data from competitors; data about the users Google knows the most about.

I think “privacy” is just a mere pretext. A “convenient” side effect that’s used for PR. The real reason that Google might have decided to stop sending referral data is different.

I think it is that its competitors in the online advertising space like Chitika and Chango are using search referral data to refine their (retargeted) ads and they’re getting some astonishing results. In some ways, you could therefor describe this as mostly an anti-competitive move.

In my eyes, there’s only one way out. We’ve now determined that your search data is private information. If Google truly believes that, it will stop sharing it with everyone, including their advertisers. Not sharing vital data like that with third parties but using it solely for your own profit is evil and anti-competitive.

If Google really wants to do something that improves privacy, they have to start by recognizing that Google data collection is more of an issue than any third party because they know our entire search history and can connect user queries across months or years.

Even when search history is turned off, Google is keeping track of our search progression within the search URL and can build a complex model of our query intent.

Everyone agrees that Google has a monopoly in search, but no one seems to have a clear answer on what to do about it. Perhaps this latest power grab provides a roadmap to how we can open up the industry to competition and somewhat level the playing field.

The most effective, minimally destructive solution would be for the US congress (unlikely) or the EU (possible) to require that Google share all of the click data they maintain for internal purposes.

Making all query and click data open would significantly level the playing field, make it easier for other companies to compete with a monopoly in search and display while creating an honest conversation about user privacy.

There can be no privacy solution that disguises the massive advantages Google holds in their ability to collect and analyze data. Only a scenario that aligns the interests of the search engines, ad networks and publishers and forces them to all play by the same rules can allow us to actually address user privacy.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Features | Features: General | Google: Privacy

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About The Author: is the founder of ItsTheROI.com, a San Francisco Search Engine Marketing Company that specializes in ROI-driven SEO.

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  • http://www.squidoo.com/greekgeek G.G.

    Search queries were ALREADY private: we had no way to know who was making those queries. This kills those of us small time writers who were playing by the rules — looking vigilantly at our search data each day to see what our visitors wanted to know, improving our content or writing new content to satisfy their interests based on our own. Now, we lack that vital visitor feedback and have no idea what many of our visitors want. The second most popular query on my articles is now cloaked so I can’t see it.

    Meanwhile, Google wants me, a woman, to attach my real name and photo to all my writing, or it won’t consider my authorship legitimate. I have been writing articles and how-tos on the web since FIVE YEARS BEFORE GOOGLE EXISTED.

    I refuse to use Google Plus until they implement the basic and sensible privacy protections used by web 1.0 entities like Livejournal since the last century: pen names (some of which have been around since the beginning of the web) which we share with online acquaintances and readers, and which we are known by.

    MEANWHILE, for some of my professional content, I reluctantly set up my non-plus profile with photo, very brief resume, real name. I linked that content to my Google profile following their arcane instructions for rel=”author” and rel=”me”, which are a nonstandard implementation of HTML5 where Google — Google! — gets to decide whether your author profile is legit or not, and of course your author profile has to be on Google or it won’t count for their search engine’s purpose. It worked fine for a couple weeks: my author name and profile icon appeared next to some of my articles. Now it’s been removed. NO explanation forthcoming from Google as to why, and I have just about had it with their bait-and-switch.

    Think about this. What it boils down to is that Google refuses to acknowledge our authorship of our content which has been around on the web longer than Google has, unless we sign up as members of Google and turn over our personal information to Google. If we do, our content may rank better in search. If we don’t, sorry charlie, Google can’t tell we’re a legitimate author. Since when did Google appoint itself the Library of Congress and Copyright office, determining who does and doesn’t have rights to their own work? Since when did membership with Google determine whether you are the author of your own work? Since when did membership with Google determine how your content appears in search results — join, and we give you a cool icon that will increase your visitors humongously; don’t join, and your results will disappear relative to our members who get the shiny icons?

    How can we make Congress understand why this is evil? And how can Google be this evil? It saddened and touched me to read recently that Steve Jobs had said the very thing I said this spring: Google is becoming Microsoft. Or, worse, AOL, trying to control the web. The irony is, all of us who refused Facebook for behavior of this kind would be Google’s ideal customers, but now it’s gone and made us even more wary of it than Mark Zuckerberg’s personal data-collecting machine.

  • http://terrafalsa.wordpress.com laoshima

    As to Google+ being the gatekeeper for rel=author, I agree it’s kind of a crock. But it’s not like every search engine doesn’t have its proprietary things. You don’t need your face in the SERPs, it’s just something neat. And I’d be surprised if they weren’t using rel=author for other things in testing and behind the scenes.

    But in general, I think people are seriously overthinking this SSL change. (Understanding this is a news source) It’s more important to determine level of effect, then act to best serve yourself as a SMB owner, whether by using some shady iframe or switching to https.

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