I first wrote this two years ago in 2016. The information is all still accurate, only Google are no longer allowed to hide their practices. This preface is all new and the conclusion has been updated. I have focussed on the change in this timeframe and made a few changes to the existing text.
- Preface for 2018
- 2016 – when Google had more licence
- Where’s My Privacy Google?
- Chrome and Android’s Covert Past
- Think Your Emails Are Safe?
- How YouTube Collects User Data
- Independant Controllers – 2018
- Does Google Spying On Me Affect SEO
- Is Google Spying On Me In 2018
Preface for 2018
Always read a contract. Online agreements are the virtual equivalent. Google’s old motto was “don’t be evil”. That is no longer their catchphrase but are they still following their mantra?
It is undeniable that Google are an advertising/data collection company above all else. They have a history of gambling on products that they are unsure how to monitise, presumably because they believe that they will become popular. Google’s most popular products collect the most information.
- Google don’t specify that they keep your emails after they are deleted.
- To use Maps Google don’t need your Geolocation. They just take it for advertising purposes (hopefully).
The last point essentially means that Google can do anything they want with the data they collect at any time as long as it is reasonably lawful – but who can enforce law on one of the biggest global corporations?
Google have too much data to manually process, however a determined and skilled hacker could cause disaster. There is so much data passing every second through Google have to have to use algorithms to analyse their user base/customers. This makes the whole situation less worrying, however a third party ‘partner‘ could ‘process‘ very selective data for very selective use.
Google fails to tell us exactly which partners they use and exactly how these third parties process the data they are given (or more likely sold). The closest they come is:
Google works with a select set of companies to provide reach, viewability, brand safety, brand lift, app attribution, and marketing mix model solutions. These partners go through a rigorous integration process to ensure quality and accuracy of results.
2016’s Introduction – When Google Had More Licence.
Is Google spying on me? Google is one of the most prolific data mining companies in the world. They have been accused of profiling their user base with good reason. I’ve dug through Google’s many privacy policies to clearly answer the question – does Google spy on you, and if so what’s the extent?
Google’s primary goal as a search engine is to classify the internet so that people are able to find the most relevant results for their queries. As a free service they profit from advertising to the huge amount of resulting traffic. They openly collect data on you in order to make their adverts more accurate and their searches more relevant.
If Google is open about the data they collect they can’t really be accused of spying. There is some truth that Google spy – or collect data – on their users but which is it?
I have done a few investigations into how Google are so good at profiling their users. I first started looking at why google might spy on you to address how user experience has become such a huge part of SEO over the last few years.
How do Google know what users do after leaving their search engine? They created one of the most popular browsers, bought the largest video search engine(which was at the time making a loss) and the industry standard analytics system. They even created a widely used operating system. Their list of products created or bought at huge cost just to give away for free goes on.
Advertising is all about targeting and targeting is all about understanding an audience. On closer inspection nearly all Google’s acquisitions can be seen as furthering their understanding on their users, or their ability to spy on their user base through a different medium.
Google exists to mine data, but up until very recently they would always dodge the question of exactly how this data is collected and processed. When it came down to more personal information they wouldn’t even give a suggestion of what exactly they were collecting.
There’s two schools of thought. Is Google’s spying selfish only existing to improve their ability to generate revenue, or are selflessly trying to create the best free search engine that they can? Regardless, both the motive and the method are there for Google to spy on their users. All that’s left to find is the proof.
Where’s My Privacy Google?
Google are constantly innovating new products which beat their competition through simple usability and interaction with other widely used products. They then give them away for free. It’s a brilliant formula.
The price is your user data – and in some cases I would say Google is spying on you. If you follow the links to the sources I use you will see the wording they use is often deliberately unclear.
There are many different ways you can use our services – to search for and share information, to communicate with other people or to create new content. When you share information with us, for example by creating a Google Account, we can make those services even better – to show you more relevant search results and ads, to help you connect with people or to make sharing with others quicker and easier
From: https://www.google.com/policies/privacy – there’s a lot more to read there if you are interested, modified august 19 2015.
Although nobody actually reads this policy, and it was written fairly recently they do openly admit that if you share data with them that they will use it. The Google account is used as an example but as this one account covers all products they could be spying on you in unexpected ways. As usual Google are slippery with their wording.
Chrome and Android’s Covert Past
When I did my last investigation I could only find one credible source which suggested Google used Chrome (and other products) to collect user data for search. That source was a 10 second segment of a 40 minute video.
User experience has been found to correlate strongly with high rankings on Google. Experts are split on whether Google are able to measure metrics such as time spent on site and bounce rate, or if a good user experience indirectly leads to social shares and links being built.
Today I can point you to the image below:
Google now openly admit that they can use chrome data to make search more personalised. If you can use the data to make search more personalised they will be collecting data to make search results more accurate across the board.
The image above mentions that they can use history from ‘Chrome and other apps’ to improve search. Could that include location data if you are using a smartphone with Android on it? I would say that’s fairly likely.
The main types of data we collect are based on the actions you take using our services, your basic account details and the things you create.
When you use our services — for example, do a search on Google, get directions on Google Maps, or watch a video on YouTube — we collect information based on the things you do, so we can make our services work better for you. When you sign up for a Google Account, we keep the basic account information you give us, like your name, email, and password. And we store and protect what you create using our services, so you will always have your emails, photos, videos, and documents when you need them.
The bolded quote above is a catch all statement. It means that Google can spy on you if they want to. This one passage means that if you create a Google account they can use any data they are able to collect.
This goes a long way in explaining how much more accurate Google has become recently. At the moment Google is very focused on artificial intelligence, they have all this data which they have been collecting for years, now what they really need is understanding.
Google no longer hides their spying. It is fairly safe to assume that using a Google product your data is being collected and your actions are being stored. This would explain why Matt Cutts famously said that Google doesn’t use any data from Google Analytics for ranking- if you Google can spy on people through their browser, analytics is no longer important.
It goes further than that though. Every time Google updates a product they can implement unexpected features. Two years ago (2014) if you were using Chrome Google were able to turn on your microphone and record your conversations as part of their ‘ok Google’ voice search.
The resulting scandal caused Google to backtrack and remove this feature. Personally I think it’s unlikely chrome was maliciously eavesdropping on their users. It would take way too much man power, but the fact of the matter is that they could have been.
Think Your Emails Are Safe?
Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection.
Google can, and does release this data to law enforcement, this means that it isn’t a purely automated system. It’s well worth reading up on their transparency policies if privacy is important to you.
How YouTube Collects User Data
My last investigation focussed on the effect YouTube had on Google’s other products (like Google News). Google has created an ultra targeted network of convergent technology.
In 2016 YouTube had yet to make any significant profit, YouTube now is a huge part of their revenue stream. You can be sure Google aren’t just flushing money away out of the kindness of their hearts. It has been the largest streaming site almost since its creation in 2006 which is why the lack of monetisation was initially confusing.
Google have a history of buying out companies for huge sums, or building products at a loss then working out how to monetise them later. YouTube is the proof, taking nearly a decade to turn a significant profit then skyrocketing into one of their most profitable acquisitions. DeepDream/DeepMind machine learning are other examples.
YouTube is also proof of how quickly and accurately they build a profile of you. They do this in many different ways, the easiest to demonstrate is I found that my news results were suggesting content to me based on my YouTube history.
I am interested in Google and the Red Hot Chili Peppers – I was just watching videos about them.
I also deleted my YouTube history, spent a day surfing the web using Google but not watching videos. After a day YouTube had new recommendations for me with no history. I found a lot more but that is a whole ‘nother post.
Google doesn’t use your history to personalise organic search by default yet, but the fact the option’s there is HUGE. They seem to be testing the system out on YouTube first.(I wrote this in 2016, they now openly admit that they ‘combine data’ across all their platforms).
Back in 2016 I hit the nail on the head. This really does prove that your average marketer, even freelancers like myself who rely on their skills are stuck in their ways. SEO is about experimenting and looking at trends. Two years ago people just didn’t want to accept their privacy was being invaded to such a degree. It took the General Data Protection Regulation(GDPR) for Google to spell it out.
In Europe the GDPR has actually made us more compliant to give data away. You get a popup and on reflex you have accepted that a site can download cookies onto your computer because otherwise you can’t use the site. Most sites don’t abuse this new legislation, but the internet is a huge place.
Google handle millions of other company’s analytics and most people turn Geotargeting on using their android phones even though by default Google were forced to have tracking off. Maps are so useful – when was the last time you used a paper map? This gives them a huge amount of leverage. Just think about the possibilities for a second. Google could blackmail nearly anyone, even if you are extremely careful with the data you share Google could blackmail somebody close to you, or somebody you know. They probably could blackmail a member of parliament.
If you watch a lot of videos it’s very convenient to have a YouTube account. YouTube is extremely good at recommending videos based on your interests. Because video is such a good platform for gauging users interests it is one of the most effective products Google has for profiling you. That is the problem. It is just so convenient to give away your identity.
“Independant Controllers” – 2018
I have been talking talking about the motives for Google collecting all this data. What is really damning is how blase that are about how they sell the data on. They refer to partners, and Independent Controllers depending on what product you use, I can only presume this is designed to confuse:
I found this to be bad, but in the same policy Google start dictating how they are liable for breaking law of countries where they opperate (most countries – not North Korea or China – they are the notwithstanding in the following legal text). It is hard to wrap your head around just how slippery they are.
(a) party to the Agreement and the Agreement is governed by the laws of:
- (i) a state of the United States of America, then, notwithstanding anything else in the Agreement, the total liability of either party towards the other party under or in connection with these Controller Terms will be limited to the maximum monetary or payment-based amount at which that party’s liability is capped under the Agreement (for clarity, any exclusion of indemnification claims from the Agreement’s limitation of liability will not apply to indemnification claims under the Agreement relating to the Data Protection Legislation); or
- (ii) a jurisdiction that is not a state of the United States of America, then the liability of the parties under or in connection with these Controller Terms will be subject to the exclusions and limitations of liability in the Agreement; or
[…]Google will not be liable for Customer’s lost revenues or indirect, special, incidental, consequential, exemplary or punitive damages, even if Google or its Affiliates have been advised of, knew or should have known that such damages do not satisfy a remedy. Google’s (and its Affiliates’) total cumulative liability to Customer or any other party for any loss or damages resulting from claims, damages or actions arising out of or relating to these Controller Terms will not exceed $500 (USD).
So basically we are saying a few things here. Google and their partners will never pay out more than $500 for losses as under American law that is what they are liable for. Remember Cambridge Analytica – Google are saying if they were responsible for a scandal to that degree, they are still only liable for $500 damages.
Damages to a company is one thing. Damage to an individual is even physical is another, however in theory Google (or their “independent controllers”) could damage entire countries as I was looking at earlier.
Does Google Spying On Me Affect SEO?
I have predicted the coming of individualised search for a long time. Google+ gave some personalisation by placing posts from your followers in your Search Engine Results Page (SERP).
Now personalised search has landed, I predict soon it will be an opt out system rather than opt in as it is now. It wasn’t so long ago when SERPs were universal no matter your location. – Does Google Spying On Me Affect SEO (2016).
In 2018 it is far more complicated than that. It is not simple to opt out, Google have so many products that you have to opt out of each individual one. Google were forced to make GEO tracking turned off by default, but if you are lost you turn it on and often leave it on. Google maps is the most popular mapping application whether you are an iPhone user or a Android fan. GEO tracking goes a huge way to giving you personalised SERPs.
However it goes further than that. If you don’t want personalisation you have to stop YouTube and Google news generating personalised recommendations. You can’t have a Gmail, Google+ or Google account and you can’t use Android or Chrome. While tweaking some of these settings the language used is very enticing: why wouldn’t you want the best browsing experience?
Since 2016 I have been saying Chrome bookmarks probably are a ranking factor. They have all but confirmed it so create bookmark worthy content to get people returning to your site. Maybe even throw in a few call to actions. Chrome user? Google is spying on you, please bookmark this page to boost my rankings 🙂
But seriously – the image above confirms by default that if you use Chrome they are collecting your data for search. This opens up a whole new world of untapped SEO methodology which people just aren’t leveraging. I will explore this in my next SEO Short.
When I was talking about blackmail I was being hypothetical, but they aren’t just storing this data on massive servers at huge expense for the hell of it. Google started as a search company and you can be sure they are using your data for SEO as well as search engine marketing (SEM).
This explains some of the correlations which have been found between user experience metrics and rankings which were previously thought to be co-incidental. Times have changed. On page SEO is all about user experience.
Is Google Spying On Me In 2018?
Google have kept going with their AI algorithms and their search results are now more dynamic than ever before. The artificial intelligence or “machine learning” will keep getting more and more accurate as they collect more and more data and the population expands. The Turing test has been beaten, and Go – a game with more positions than there are atoms in the universe was beaten by Google’s own deepmind algorithm.
A limiting factor is that there is only so much a human can do with everything collected. Unfortunately Google have always been very secretive about the algorithms they use and exactly how they categorise data is as much a mystery as how they rank search.
With the recent changes to their defaults huge advertising firms could in theory buy data off Google. If I were a “partner” who wants far more detailed data than Google analytics give, there isn’t really anything to Google selling it to them. It’s ironic. Google had to give away some of their data – vaguely that they collect and share data with partners – due to the GDPR, and that has just given them an excuse to make more money. They don’t need to blackmail anybody.
It is unlikely that they will blackmail your local MP, or sell data on your local MP to the highest bidder but don’t forget Cambridge Analytica. That was ‘unlikely’.
Call it spying or profiling. You would be pretty naïve to think that Google spends billions on free products to give them away with no catch. Everything has a cost and a value in this case it’s your identity.
This is becoming increasingly common knowledge but if you learned something new, please share this post to help raise awareness.
Learn more about Google’s spying from an SEO’s perspective: