Turning The Tables On The Google Toolbar & Disclosure Claims

Part of this week’s debate over whether Microsoft’s Bing search engine is learning from Google involves data that Bing gathers through Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Google has suggested Microsoft isn’t giving fair disclosure. I disagree. To better illustrate, let’s turn the tables and look at the Google Toolbar and disclosure.

Over the past week, Google has pushed at least three times that Bing is somehow gathering data via Internet Explorer to improve Bing’s search results without fairly disclosing this to IE users.

Microsoft Does Disclose

The first time was during my initial meeting with Google on January 28, when it aired its allegations against Bing. When I wrote my story from that meeting, I looked in detail at Microsoft’s disclosures for Suggested Sites and the Bing Bar, features for Internet Explorer that can send back information. I found nothing wrong:

It’s hard to argue that gathering information about what people search for at Google isn’t covered. Technically, there’s nothing misleading — even if Bing, for obvious reasons, isn’t making it explicit that to improve its search results, it might look at what Bing Bar users search for at Google and click on there.

But Google Claims Better Disclosure

Disclosure came up again during a panel at Bing’s Farsight 2011 event on Tuesday, with the same suggestion that Microsoft wasn’t being explicit enough. The discussion starts about 9 minutes in, and the head of Google’s web spam fighting team Matt Cutts also argued that Google itself goes out of its way to warn people about the data collection that its own Google Toolbar does, saying:

Whenever you install the Google Toolbar, there’s a big red letter in capital letters that says “Please read this, it’s not the usual yada yada.”

The “Mom Test”

Hang on to that comment. I’ll come back to it. On Thursday, Cutts continued to press the disclosure issue, writing in a post on his personal blog:

I don’t think an average consumer realizes that if they say “yes, show me suggested sites” that they’re granting Microsoft permission to send their queries and clicks on Google to Microsoft, which will then be used in Bing’s ranking.
I think my Mom would be confused that saying “Yes” to that dialog will send what she searches for on Google and what she clicks on to Microsoft. I don’t think that IE8′s disclosure is clear and conspicuous enough that a reasonable consumer could make an informed choice and know that IE8 will send their Google queries/clicks to Microsoft.

OK, let’s turn those tables now and do the “Mom Test” on the Google Toolbar.

“Enhanced Features” & Page Tracking

The Google Toolbar is installed on millions of computers. How many, I don’t know. I’ve never seen Google confirm the figure, even though Google has been asked about this many times over the years. Available for both Internet Explorer and Firefox, the toolbar makes it easy to search Google right from your browser, obtain cached copies of page, share pages and offers many other handy features.

The Google Toolbar will also monitor every page you visit on the web, if “Enhanced Features” are switched on. This allows the Google Toolbar to enable the PageRank meter that some SEOs and searchers find useful. It’s also how Google Sidewiki is made to load related information to a page. If you use Google Web History, the toolbar can also feed into that.

Not The Usual Yada Yada

Years ago, back when the Google Toolbar was new (it first came out in 2000), it had a unique warning to alert people to read all of its terms. From 2003, it said:

PLEASE READ THIS CAREFULLY IT’S NOT THE USUAL YADA YADA
By using the Advanced Features version of the Google Toolbar, you may be sending information about the sites you visit to Google.

The warning has changed over the years. Here’s an example from a PC Magazine article about the Google Toolbar in December 2007:

Yada Yada Goes Missing

Somewhere along the way, that “Not The Usual Yada Yada” warning disappeared. Yesterday and today, I installed the Google Toolbar on Internet Explorer for Windows and for Firefox on both Windows and the Mac. That warning was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, this is the screen I got with any of the installations I tried:

Nothing above stands out as Google doing anything especially unique to get users to read about what the toolbar might track. Instead, it seems like a pretty typical disclosure screen where everything is buried in the fine print.

Long Terms, Old Terms

For example, only the first of over 75 numbered subsections of the Google Terms Of Service are shown. Those terms are dated April 16, 2007 and so can’t encompass newer features that the toolbar gathers data for, such as Google Sidewiki, if that’s enabled.

The Google Privacy Policy for the Google Toolbar, arguably more important to show as part of the install process, isn’t available in the scroll window. You have to click on a link to see it separately. The privacy policy dates from December 9, 2009, so it might not cover some newer issues, either.

Site Speed Usage Not Detailed

I’ll come back to the privacy policy. But let’s continue with the install process. After it is finished, the toolbar is loaded into your browser and comes up with this message, if you’re installing into Firefox:

You have to make a choice: do you want to enable “Enhanced Features” or not? You’re told this is what the features will provide:

PageRank and future page-related services are part of the enhanced Toolbar. For enhanced Toolbar features to work, Toolbar has to tell us what site you’re visiting by sending Google the URL.

Now, using the “Mom Test” that Cutts suggests, the toolbar should be specific about any other uses of browsing data it collects. One of those uses, we know from past Google statements, is to measure the speed of sites, which in turn is one of Google’s ranking criteria.

Mom’s not told that.

Google’s Catch-All

There may be other things that Google Toolbar data is used for that is not explicitly revealed. One omission suggests there may be more. That’s not to say that Google’s violating its privacy policy by collecting whatever it wants and using it however it wants. Similar to Microsoft, the privacy policy contains a catch-all provision:

We process your requests in order to operate and improve the Google Toolbar and other Google services.

In short, Google doesn’t occupy any higher ground than Microsoft, from what I can see, when it comes to using data gathered from browser add-ons to improve its own services, including its search engine.

No “No” Option For Internet Explorer

Finally, look closely at the “Enhanced Features” confirmation screen below:

This is the screen I got when I installed the Google Toolbar into Internet Explorer. Notice the choices are “Ask me later” or “Enable enhanced features.” There’s literally no “No” button on that screen.

With Firefox, either installing to Windows or Mac, this screen had a “No Thanks” option. It’s odd that IE doesn’t have exactly the same options.

To be clear, “Ask me later” seems to operate the same as “No thanks.” Select it, and the enhanced features remain off. But will you get a nagging prompt later, to try them again? I don’t know, as I’ve only just installed the Google Toobar into IE, which itself I use rarely.

I’m hoping to follow up with Google more about the Google Toolbar in the near future, to better understand what it collects, how that information may be used for search rankings and perhaps to discover why it’s “Ask me later” in Internet Explorer but “No thanks” in Firefox.

For more background on Google’s issue with Bing, and Bing’s rebuttal that it’s not copying Google, see our stories below:

Postscript: See Google On Toolbar: We Don’t Use Bing’s Searches

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Copygate | Google: Toolbar | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.myspace.com/raaawb Rob Baker

    It stands to reason then that Bing could run the same “honeypot sting” and see if their own custom results turn up on Google.

  • http://david.ulevitch.com/ David Ulevitch

    Of course. Google is always hypocritical on these issues. Thanks for reporting on this.

  • http://mobilementalism.com Mike Evans

    I agree to a point. Certainly Google could be more transparent with what it does with the data it collects. But the difference is that Google is using data from a toolbar, which you must explicitly choose to install as an add on.

    With Microsoft, you’re using a web browser that in many cases is the default browser, and for some people, it’s what they think of as the only browser. Indeed, for most people, it’s simply an extension of Windows, which is what Microsoft has actively promoted for many years.

    For the browser – which for most people is just something that comes with the computer – to send your searches to Microsoft is a very different concept from a toolbar – which is something you’ve chosen to install from a search company – tracking the pages you’ve visited and sending that data to the company that developed the toolbar.

    It’s equivalent to the difference between your car sending your journey details back to the car’s manufacturer, and your sat-nav (which is an add-on you’ve chosen to install) sending the same data to the sat-nav company. You know why Garmin needs to know where you’re going and where you’ve been, but why does Ford?

  • http://thenoisychannel.com/ Daniel Tunkelang

    I think the parties on both sides are being sincere but are exhibiting selective perception. I’ve offered my own analysis at

    http://thenoisychannel.com/2011/02/05/google-vs-bing-a-tweetle-beetle-battle-muddle/

    Full disclosure: I spent about a year at Google, but I’m not disclosing any confidential information, nor do I have a dog in this race. In fact, I have many friends at both companies.

  • Sean

    What about Chrome? Or Android? Have you looked at Google’s disclosure there?

  • http://blog.glennf.com Glenn Fleishman

    Also, Google doesn’t get extra points for using large red capital letters telling people to read the disclosure options, whether or not it’s currently in the installation process.

    You get extra points for explaining to people at the time at which they enable option precisely what will happen, what rights and information they give up, and how to reverse the option easily, or have their information removed from remote servers if they decide to change their mind. You do that at the time a choice is made (which appears to be the intent below the big red letters in the older installation).

  • http://borasky-research.net/smart-at-znmeb znmeb

    Toolbars are spyware. Don’t use them.

  • http://www.jeromyevans.com Jeromy Evans

    Great follow-up work Danny.
    This must be keeping you up at night!

  • http://besthubris.com/ BestHubris

    My first thought when I read Matt Cutts’ statement that IE doesn’t easily, clearly, and obviously disclose that data goes to Microsoft when using the toolbar or IE was, “Oh, and are Google’s disclosures any better?”

    Of course not. It is a given in business (not just the Internet) that a company can bury whatever it wants in pages of text and it counts as disclosure. For Cutts to call that out as a Microsoft “bad” is hypocritical.

    I don’t approve of copying, but until Google comes clear about EVERYTHING it collects or records (in a list) on ALL of its products, this is nothing more than sour grapes.

    If all of that spam filling up Google’s search results doesn’t get better soon, Microsoft’s Bing would be better off dropping any signals from Google and figure out how to add some ranking factors not based on something that all the SEO + content farms + spammers are not actively targeting.

  • techSage

    The post was a little shy on details about how Microsoft discloses what information it uses (i.e. no screenshots), but I appreciate the candor of the post. Here are some screenshots of IE8 (I am not affiliated with this site): http://blogs.chron.com/techblog/archives/2009/01/installing_internet_explorer_8_rc1_a_visual_t.html
    You can see that Microsoft appears to be doing at least what Google is. Google’s tactic almost seems to be to bore someone into clicking Yes just so they don’t have to read all of that text with a clunky scrollbar. Who knows? You can see though that IE8 has a highly visible, though not annoying, link to the privacy policy on every page of the welcome wizard and adds the additional explanation on the Suggested Sites page about using your browsing history.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    techSage, i looked at disclosures (with screenshots) about Internet Explorer in my first article:

    http://searchengineland.com/google-bing-is-cheating-copying-our-search-results-62914

    As I said above, I didn’t see that this was an issue.

    Daniel, that was a great piece.

    Sean, I didn’t look at either of those because the Google Toolbar is probably the biggest way Google is collecting data for use in its search results. We know they use it for site speed measurements. It’s unclear if the data is used in other ways. They’ve said they don’t use toolbar data to put URLs into Google’s results, but it could be used to help rank existing URLs (ways beyond how site speed is already used, for example).

  • http://www.stareclips.com/?twitter Bob Bigellow

    The interesting thing is… regardless of the disclaimers… Microsoft is the one actually doing more explicit actions from the data it collects than Google is.

  • http://www.everfluxx.com/ Everfluxx

    the Google Toolbar is probably the biggest way Google is collecting data for use in its search results. We know they use it for site speed measurements. It’s unclear if the data is used in other ways. They’ve said they don’t use toolbar data to put URLs into Google’s results, but it could be used to help rank existing URLs (ways beyond how site speed is already used, for example).

    You nailed it, Danny!

    At 10’30″ of the Fairsight video you can hear Matt Cutts say: “We don’t use clicks on [sic] Bing’s users in Google’s rankings”.

    Well, that’s a very strong statement! I wonder if that applies to the processing of clickstream information that Google gathers via the Google Toolbar and through the analysis of log files that they acquire both directly and from partner ISPs.

  • http://thenoisychannel.com/ Daniel Tunkelang

    Danny: thanks for the kind words.

    I do hope that at least the result of all this sound and fury is more users understanding how search engines work. There are some really interesting questions being raised in this debate, especially if people can see past the competitive rivalry.

  • http://www.davidcoxon.com/blog davidcoxon

    Surely the point that google are making is not that the either they or microsoft are collecting data on which sites people are visiting after all one of the criteria for how highly a sight appears in the search rankings. What microsoft seem to be doing though (and i say this a huge microsoft fan) is not only using the visit data they are seeing from people running google searches but going one step further and collecting the search result that go with the search. whether that is my cross referencing the next page or reading it not from the search bar but also the page.

    The problem with this kind of behaviour is not that its ripping off the work another company has invested in carrying out, but that it duplicates bugs and it devalues both products. Quite often i will try bing if i can’t find what i’m looking for on google or vice versa, if they both have essentially the same results then its depriving me of a useful tool.

    or have i got that wrong?

  • Sean

    I have a feeling Matt Cutts got a little sandbagged by the Google Toolbar team.

    He clearly thought the disclaimer was more overt than it actually is, but sometime over the last three years, the toolbar team quietly dumbed down the text without him noticing (and since he probably never uses IE with the GToolbar).\\

    re: chrome and android — I agree that the data from them is probably minisucle, but the disclosure policies on those products is probably a significant indicator of how Google things about disclosure these days.

  • http://azzlsoft.com Rich Miles

    @davidcoxon It is difficult for me to assess the point that Google is trying to make. What I can tell you is that their tests show no evidence of Microsoft literally coping the search results off the page. What their tests do show is that Microsoft is collecting user data (which was known up front — and exploited for this ‘experiment’) and that Google’s sites are not exempt from that collection (which was not known upfront).

    It would be rather ridiculous for Microsoft to actually scrape Google’s results because the user intent is vastly more important. Google had a virtual monopoly on usage statistics. Microsoft has, to some extent, leveled the playing field with their own monopoly. Google is justifiably concerned, but Microsoft has done nothing wrong.

    Google was intellectually dishonest when they claimed Bing copied their search results. Most people would assume that Bing was copying Google’s actual ranking, when in fact, Google has not even remotely demonstrated that. They have, however, raised issues with Bing’s data collection policy which has called into question their own practices.

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