If at first you don’t succeed, get negative once again, seems to be the game plan at Microsoft. Having attacked Google Shopping with a “Scroogled” campaign last November, Microsoft is back again. This time it goes after Gmail as an evil service that invades your email privacy, armed with polling data showing consumer concern — and perhaps one valid point about an easier opt-out.
The Microsoft Survey & Consumer Disapproval
Microsoft commissioned a survey of over 1,006 adults in the US from Feb. 1-4, asking about email services that target ads based on the content of your email. You know. Google’s Gmail, which is the only major service that does this, though Google or Gmail weren’t supposedly named. The results:
- 70% of Americans didn’t believe or didn’t know whether any major email service provider scanned the content of personal emails in order to target ads
- 83% of Americans agree that email service providers scanning the content of your personal emails to target ads is an invasion of privacy
- 88% of Americans disapprove of email service providers scanning the content of your personal emails in order to target ads (and 52% disapprove strongly)
- 88% of email users believe that email service providers should allow users to “opt-out” if they prefer that the content of their emails not be scanned in order to target ad
- 89% of Americans agree that email service providers should not be allowed to scan the content of personal emails in order to target ads
In short, pick your question, there’s a lot of disapproval supposedly about what Gmail does, which is to show ads based on the content of an email that you’re reading.
Of course, some of the answers are contradictory. How is it that email users can both believe that emails shouldn’t be scanned for ad targeting purposes AND also think there should be an opt-out, at practically the same high percentage? If so many agree there should be an opt-out, then when you think about it, they’re not opposed that type of targeting as long as an opt-out is provided.
Scroogle Gets Outed Early
I’m still waiting for the actual questions that were asked; plus, the Scroogled site itself has yet to be updated to reflect the latest campaign. This is because it was supposed to go live at 11pm PT.
Postscript: The actual poll is now up here.
Microsoft had been briefing reporters about it, including myself. However, Dan Lyons over at ReadWrite who wasn’t briefed — and thus not subject to an embargo restriction — got some of the details and wrote them up. Embargo lifted, I was told, when I asked Microsoft — which is no doubt now scrambling to finish the site.
This screenshot above is part of what will appear on the site:
There will also be newspapers ads, such as this one below:
Fair? Not Really, Though Opt-Out Could Be Better
Is the campaign fair? I’d say mostly no, but there are some things that Google could do to improve things.
Microsoft suggests that there is no way to opt-out of Gmail showing you ads targeted to your email content. Not true. There are several ways, ranging from using the HTML version of Gmail, to using an email program (such as Mail on the iPhone or Microsoft’s own Outlook software), to the $50 per year Google Apps service that allows anyone to opt-out.
When I put this to Stefan Weitz, director of Microsoft’s Bing search engine (and apparently co-opted by Microsoft to speak on all things Scroogled), the response was that these options aren’t simple.
“There’s no easy way to opt out,” Weitz told me. ”These are not ways that the average consumer is going to know”
The Google Apps Opt-Out Isn’t Easy
That, I agree with. As a Google Apps user myself, I would never wish the horror of having to become an administrator for a wide-range of Google services, which is what Google Apps requires, if all you want to do is opt-out of ads. HTML mail is an option, but do most Gmail users know to do this?
Microsoft, of course, has ads in Outlook.com. It even has ads that are personalized based on your age, zip code and gender. I’m pretty sure if you asked consumers a question of whether ads should be targeted at them that way, you’d get a high percentage saying no.
How About A $20 Per Year Gmail Opt-Out, Like Outlook?
But, if you know where to look, you can switch those ads off for $20 per year at Outlook (though when I tried, I kept getting a error demanding I have a Windows Live ID, even though I was already signed-in. Perhaps, though, this might be because I already have an ad-free Outlook account).
A smart move by Google would be to do the same. Offer the ability to turn off ads right within Gmail for $20 per year. Then, if people really are as concerned as the polling data suggests, they have an easy choice.
If People Want Privacy, How About Bing’s Personalized Search?
Polling data is funny stuff, though. Recall that last year, Pew conducted a poll that found 73% of people felt personalized search was an invasion of their privacy. And yet, by default, Bing (like Google), personalizes search. If Microsoft really believes that Google should drop Gmail ad targeting based on its polling data, it’s pretty easy to say that Bing ought to stop doing personalized search.
Why Attack Gmail Now?
The ad campaign also felt odd to me because way back when Gmail launched in 2004, there was a huge amount of media attention to the idea of how the ads were targeted. Why does Microsoft suddenly believe this is an issue nearly 10 years later? Surely it was clearly accepted by consumers back at that time, who probably did hear about some of the targeting.
“Even after a solid decade of the practice, people still don’t understand it, and when they do, they don’t like it,” Weitz said, citing the survey. He also said that it’s a good distinguishing point between Gmail and Microsoft’s recently launched Outlook.com email service.
Reading Email For Security Deemed OK
Another issue is that Microsoft, like Google, “reads” your email in an automated fashion (neither have humans that are doing this). Microsoft does it in order to help filter out spam and phishing attacks. This is also one of the reasons Google does it. So why is that reading acceptable?
Weitz said that for security, scanning like this makes sense. It’s the scanning for contextual targeting of ads that Microsoft objects to, based on the fact, Weitz said, that consumers seem to object to it.
Microsoft Wants A Google Opt-Out
And what does Microsoft want Google to do?
“We’re calling on them to do some kind of change behalf of consumers,” Weitz said — in particular saying an easy opt-out should be provided, even if that’s a paid option.
Google Says All’s Fine
I guess we’ll see. When asked by another reporter that was briefed on this how Google might react, I said Google would likely mostly ignore the campaign. So far, that’s pretty much the case. When I asked for any comment, Google sent this statement that all media outlets are getting:
Advertising keeps Google and many of the websites and services Google offers free of charge. We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant. No humans read your email or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information. An automated algorithm — similar to that used for features like Priority Inbox or spam filtering — determines which ads are shown.
In general, the Microsoft campaign leaves me cold, given how negative it is. Personally, what might get me to switch from Gmail to Outlook would be if Outlook had IMAP support. How about some of this negative energy going into making that type of improvement and others to pull consumers over.
But, it would be nice to see Google provide an easy way to opt-out by paying right within Gmail. That would pretty much defuse any further Microsoft attacks. But even if not, I suspect despite what Microsoft’s poll says, most consumers on Gmail are going to stay there.
- Microsoft Slams Google Privacy Changes With “Putting People First” Ad Campaign
- No, You Don’t Need To Fear The Google Privacy Changes: A Reality Check
- Bing Attacks Google Shopping With “Scroogled” Campaign, Forgets It’s Guilty Of Same Problems
- Bing Shopping As A Poster Child For Consumer Confusion About Ads
- Microsoft To Make Same Privacy Change Google Was Attacked For; No One Seems To Care
- EU Takes 10 Days To Question Google Privacy Change; After Two Months, Finally Looks At Microsoft’s
- Pew Report: 65% View Personalized Search As Bad; 73% See It As Privacy Invasion