Last September, Google CEO Larry Page warned Google’s biggest threat was Google itself. His words are ringing true, as Google arch-nemesis Microsoft is seizing on Google’s recent missteps to score some points through a newspaper ad campaign that pitches Microsoft’s products as treating customers better than Google’s do.
“Over the past couple of weeks, there have been a number of decisions that Google has made that have caused people to pause and think about their relationship with Google,” said Microsoft corporate communications chief Frank X. Shaw. “That’s why we decided to run some ads. To say, ‘Hey, we have a different point of view, and you should check out these services. They don’t come with the same set of trade-offs’.”
Below, a look at the ad campaign, the related Microsoft blog post, how Google gave Microsoft this unprecedented opportunity to attack Google on this front, plus a reality check on the claims.
The Ad Campaign
The ads run today, tomorrow and Friday. Here’s copy of the ad, which Microsoft sent me. You can click to enlarge it, and the text is also further below:
The ad says:
Google is in the process of making some unpopular changes to some of their most popular products. Those changes, cloaked in language like “transparency,” “simplicity” and “consistency,” are really about one thing: making it easier for Google to connect the dots between everything you search, send, say or stream while using one of their services.
But, the way they’re doing it is making it harder for you to maintain control of your personal information. Why are they so interested in doing this that they would risk this kind of backlash? One logical reason: Every data point they collect and connect to you increases how valuable you are to an advertiser.
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to improve the quality of an advertising product. But, that effort needs to be balanced with continuing to meet the needs and interests of users. Every business finds its own balance and attracts users who share those priorities. Google’s new changes have upset that balance, with users’ priorities being de-prioritized. That’s why people are concerned and looking for alternatives.
If these changes rub you the wrong way, please consider using our portfolio of award-winning products and services….
The Blog Post
The ad ends by naming four Microsoft products, exactly as the Microsoft blog post about the campaign does, after a different introduction:
During the last week or so, there has been a fair amount of discussion about how Google is making some unpopular changes to some of its most popular products. You can see some of the concerns and worries about lack of choice and so on in these links.
When we read the coverage last week, it was clear people were honestly wrestling with the choices that had been made for them and were looking for options or alternatives.
The changes Google announced make it harder, not easier, for people to stay in control of their own information. We take a different approach – we work to keep you safe and secure online, to give you control over your data, and to offer you the choice of saving your information on your hard drive, in the cloud, or on both.
- Hotmail: Join the hundreds of millions of people who enjoy not worrying about the content of their private emails being used to serve ads.
- Bing: The search engine that gives you great experiences using the whole web.
- Office 365: The award-winning online collaboration solution for businesses who don’t want their documents and mail used to benefit advertisers.
- Internet Explorer: The world’s most popular browser, now with Tracking Protection, offering controls over your privacy as you browse.
And to help remind people of these alternatives, we’re placing a series of ads in some major newspapers this week.
If you haven’t tried these Microsoft products and services, give ‘em a shot. If you’ve tried them before and moved on, come on back. We’ve left the light on for you. :)
Do Microsoft’s accusations measure up? I’ll get back to that. Far more important is that Google has put itself in the position of even giving Microsoft an opportunity to raise accusations like this at all.
If Microsoft had tried this type of campaign a month ago, I think plenty of people would have laughed off the idea that Microsoft was somehow looking out for its customers more than Google. Maybe that will still happen today. But Google’s in a weaker position now.
That’s because January, rather than April, has proven to be the cruelest month for Google — and largely through Google’s own doing.
The Search Plus Your World release raised serious questions about whether Google’s search results pages were being used to promote its Google+ social network in ways that hurt relevancy. It also called into question Google’s overall fairness.
The move sparked huge debate, which Google largely ignored until last Friday, when Google search chief Amit Singhal spoke at length about reaction to the changes. But by then, faith in Google had taken another body blow.
It took only two days for Google to get a letter from members of the US Congress asking for clarification about the new privacy changes. Plenty of headlines painted a negative picture of the move. It was anything but beautiful and simple experience that Google’s been talking about wanting to deliver recently.
I’ve covered Google since the company started, and these two body blows to its image so close together are fairly unprecedented.
The big upset in April 2004 over Gmail ads was largely offset by Google’s overall reputation as having worked to benefit users. When Google announced in January 2006 that it was going to censor Chinese search results, outrage in some quarters was countered by Google having been the lone search engine to stand-up to the US Justice Department’s demand for search logs.
But this past month, it has felt a continual stream of bad news. Google began January by penalizing itself for being involved in an unsavory ad campaign. It also had to apologize for raiding the listings of a Kenyan business directory. Last week, new details about how Google helped online pharmacies sell drugs illegally in the US were aired in the Wall Street Journal.
In its favor, Google could point to its staunch fight this month against the anti-piracy SOPA & PIPA bills as a sign that the “Don’t Be Evil” company of old was still doing business as usual. However, for some (say Rupert Murdoch and his powerful friends), that was further proof that Google was still the evil copyright-infringing, piracy-promoting company it always was.
In the end, I’ve seen numerous people in the tech press shaking their virtual heads wondering at what’s seemed some very odd moves from Google. I’ve been one of them. That’s made the ground ripe for Microsoft to harvest some potential anti-Google anger.
The Reality Check
The changes Google announced make it harder, not easier, for people to stay in control of their own information.
We take a different approach – we work to keep you safe and secure online, to give you control over your data, , and to offer you the choice of saving your information on your hard drive, in the cloud, or on both.
And also from my conversation with Shaw:
“There’s actually a philosophical difference. When you boil it down, Google really only has one customer, and that’s its advertisers,” Shaw told me.
In contrast, Shaw said, Microsoft has customers who are advertisers, as well as customers who are consumers, small businesses and big businesses who purchase its products directly. Even those who use a free, ad-based service like Bing are thought of differently, he said. “We don’t just view them as inventory but as customers who buy our stuff.”
There’s no doubt that Google’s changes will give it the ability to share data between its properties more easily. But as I wrote before, that doesn’t mean Google just suddenly starts using these newly-gained rights. For example, Google isn’t now going to use search history as a way to improve “remarketing.”
Let’s say, however, that Google did. This means that Google users would have no way to opt-out, if you believe many of the headlines you’ve read. But that’s not correct. You can opt-out in two different ways. First, you can opt-out of targeted ads using the Google Ads Preferences page. You can also disable having your searches logged through the Web History settings page.
In turn, that policy tells me to read the Microsoft Advertising Privacy Supplement, where I learn that Microsoft has the right to use my search history to target me with ads as I surf the web. I can opt-out, of course, using a page similar to that which Google offers. I can also clear my search history in a way that’s similar to what Google offers.
In order to offer you a more consistent and personalized experience in your interactions with Microsoft, information collected through one Microsoft service may be combined with information obtained through other Microsoft services.
We may also supplement the information we collect with information obtained from other companies. For example, we may use services from other companies that enable us to derive a general geographic area based on your IP address in order to customize certain services to your geographic area.
Whether Microsoft’s various privacy policies give more or less rights than Google’s forthcoming one is quite possibly an impossible task for anyone to properly measure, given how open-ended they all seem to be.
Even if you could itemize all the rights in the privacy policies, there still remain controls that users have with services at both Google and Microsoft which may prevent information from being logged or shared.
Google’s Big Mistake
It’s sort of like when the US Constitution was created. It gave the new federal government many powers. The Bill of Rights was created with it to help reassure citizens and state governments that the federal government wasn’t all powerful.
But in creating this new constitution, Google has done a poor job illustrating what constrains its powers. It does have the Google Dashboard, which displays much of the data Google has gathered about particular users, so those users can review, delete or exert control, to some extent. This is also something that, to my knowledge, Microsoft has nothing to match.
Correction: A reader alerted me to the Microsoft Personal Data Dashboard Beta that provides something similar to the Google Dashboard.
However, the Google Dashboard doesn’t highlight much of the cross-property sharing that happens within Google now, nor ways it can be prevented, for those who might be concerned. Again, Microsoft may have exactly the same issues or worse. But Microsoft didn’t suddenly change from having articles that govern a confederation of seemingly independent properties to a constitution that unites everything under one company. So, Microsoft — like many Google rivals — isn’t coming under the same scrutiny.
Perhaps this perspective will be reassuring to some who have heard about the Google privacy changes already and may be worried. Perhaps it will reassure some who hear about them through the new Microsoft ads. But there’s no getting around that’s it’s not reassuring that Google didn’t already anticipate these type of concerns from the beginning.
Bottom line. Google has long had a “trust us” type of attitude, in my view, because the company has internally viewed itself as fighting to do the best for its users. It has defined itself as not being “evil” in the way it has viewed other companies acting, Microsoft in particular during Google’s first decade, Facebook and Apple for being “closed” more lately.
But Google is no longer the scrappy little underdog. It’s a huge, powerful company that many people will simply view as any other type of company — not to be particularly trusted. That means “trust us” no longer works, as an answer.
Postscript: Google has responded. See our follow-up story, Google “Myth Busts” Microsoft’s Privacy Claims. Also see No, You Don’t Need To Fear The Google Privacy Changes: A Reality Check
- Google’s Results Get More Personal With “Search Plus Your World”
- FAQ: What’s The Debate About Google’s Search Plus Your World?
- “Don’t Be Evil” Tool — Backed By Facebook & Twitter — Shows Google’s “Search Plus Your World” Can Go Beyond Google+
- Two Weeks In, Google Says “Search Plus Your World” Going Well, Critics Should Give It Time
- 14 “Is Google Evil?” Tipping Points Since 2001
- Larry Page: Biggest Threat To Google? “Google”
- Anti-Google Graffiti, Steve Martin Joke: Signs Perceptions Of Google Changing For Worse?
- Google “Myth Busts” Microsoft’s Privacy Claims
- No, You Don’t Need To Fear The Google Privacy Changes: A Reality Check