Google deserves our data but its search service is getting worse


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.

This value exchange has often been forgotten in the public debates over Google’s new privacy policy. Letting Google see how we use its products, and letting it share this data across its services, is the price we pay for using those products.

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.

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here