The cliché is true. If you’re not paying for a service, you’re not the customer – you’re the product. And Google’s customers are its advertisers, not web users.
To Google, consumers are merely cattle, being fattened up on free search and email to be delivered, sliced and segmented, to clients hungry for a responsive audience.
But unlike cattle, sentient human beings don’t walk willingly to slaughter, and neither would Google want us to. What Google harvests from us is our data, and we give it because we get something valuable in return.
Forgetfulness is everywhere, in fact, mainly because the prevailing digital business model for a decade or more has been to give web users what they want free of charge. But digital services are not free to provide. Innovation requires investment and investment requires web companies to have an income stream.
If they’re not charging the user, they need to have a compelling case for why brands should advertise with them, and that’s what our data is for.
Google has a moral claim, if not to a pound of flesh, then to a cross-section of our online lives – sufficient that we can preserve our privacy and security. But on a more practical level, Google is in danger of forgetting that it also needs our co-operation.
Google’s biggest mistake is not that it has broadened its exploitation of user data, but that it has reworked its search products so it collects more of it.
Ultimately, this has made the products worse.
The nub of this is that Google wants to be like Facebook – ever present on the web, so it can collect ever more user data. Its mechanism for achieving this is Google+, its social network.
So standard Google searches are now ‘personalised’, meaning anything shared on Google+ through its ‘+1’ button – the equivalent of the Facebook ‘like’ – comes higher up the search results.
Similarly, Google has made it more difficult to search the web for videos, replacing that tab on its home page with one that searches only its own video site, YouTube. With these changes, Google is ensuring that all its own web pages, where it has the monopoly on selling ads and can collect more user data, are more discoverable than others.
That might give Google a captive market in the short term, but it needs to be careful that its search products continue to allow web users to find what they want. We are free-range consumers, liable to wander off if the grass seems greener somewhere else.