Earlier this month, Google did a post to bust myths that it felt were being spread about the company regarding privacy. First on the list was from an ad run against Google by FairSearch. Google even later updated its post to say the FairSearch ad had been pulled as ”inaccurate.” As it turns out, the ad wasn’t pulled as Google claimed, even though I’d agree it was inaccurate.
It’s been quite the bouncing ball I’ve had to follow in order to clear all this up. Come along, and I’ll explain what happened.
Google’s Myth Busting Post
Here’s the original Google post:
The arrow marked 1 points to the statement from FairSearch that Google wanted to myth bust. The blog post quoted a FairSearch ad as saying:
In 2011, Google made $36 billion selling information about users like you. [Fairsearch - PDF]
FairSearch Did Say That, But In A Different Ad
Next is arrow 2, an error on Google’s part that caused FairSearch to later say Google “lies not once but twice.” The second arrow points to how Google links to the actual ad from FairSearch that you’d expect would contain the statement.
That ad, which you can see in full here, doesn’t say what Google quoted:
Instead, the ad has a somewhat similar sounding claim:
Google sold over $36 billion of targeted advertising in 2011.
Similar sounding, but not similar meaning. Google doesn’t sell personal information, as it claimed in its post. But I’ll get back to that.
When I talked to Google about all this, it acknowledged the error and told me it would be corrected somehow shortly (as I write this, it’s now two days later, and it still hasn’t been).
If this was just a mix-up of linking to the wrong ad, this pretty much would have been a non-story. FairSearch did make the statement that Google was objecting to, as I’ll explain shortly. Google just linked to the wrong place.
Was The Ad Pulled As Inaccurate?
However, arrow 3 points out a far bigger concern. Google went back to its original blog post at some point after it was originally published to further poke at the FairSearch claim, saying that the ad no longer ran because it was deemed inaccurate:
The FairSearch ad referenced below as myth #1 was pulled because it was inaccurate.
That’s what prompted FairSearch to respond with its own blog post this week, saying:
The facts here are clear — Google lied about what the FairSearch.org ad stated originally, and even more bizarrely then lied about the ad being pulled for being “inaccurate.”
Dispute Over Text Ad In Politico, Not In Print
Who was correct? Finding out was tough, because both Google and FairSearch make it sound like the dispute has been over print ads that FairSearch has been running. Instead, the dispute revolves over a text ad that ran in Politico, something that neither Google nor FairSearch explain at all in their respective posts.
Let’s look at the actual ad in question, as it appeared:
The ad says (I’ve bolded the part Google quoted):
A message from FairSearch.org: In 2011, Google made $36 billion selling information about users like you. As one Google executive said, “We don’t monetize the thing we create…we monetize the people that use it.” Now that’s good to know. www.fairsearch.org/
The ad ran in the Politico “Morning Tech” newsletter on February 1, which in turn is apparently archived here (visible only if you’re a paid Politico Pro member). The newsletter also carried a second, longer ad from FairSearch at the end of the newsletter.
The ad did not run in Politico’s Afternoon Tech newsletter on that same day. That’s important, because Google initially told me this was proof that Politico has pulled the ad, when I followed up with the company about its claim.
Not so, said FairSearch. It remained adamant no ads were ever pulled, not even on Politico. The only reason the ad didn’t appear in Afternoon Tech was because that newsletter is a shorter version. It wasn’t scheduled to appear there, FairSearch told me.
Politico: We Didn’t Pull The Ad
At this point, I went to Politico itself, to see if it could back one or the other claim over the ad being pulled or not. Politico COO Kim Kingsley emailed me:
We did not pull an ad. The specific ad you are referring to was only scheduled to run once and it ran once.
That’s pretty definitive. So how on earth did Google end up making what seems like a blatant lie?
Why Did Google Claim It Was Pulled?
Google told me that normally, advertisers run a campaign in Politico’s tech newsletters across an entire week. Each day, the morning newsletter carries two ads, one in the middle of the newsletter, one at the end. The afternoon newsletter carries the same two ads, Google told me.
When Google saw the ad in question on the morning of February 1, Google told me it contacted Politico to complain about it being inaccurate, urging that it shouldn’t be allowed to run in the afternoon. After conversations with Politico ad executives, the ad didn’t run, which Google took as it being pulled and for the reasons it complained about, being inaccurate.
However, Politico tells me differently, that the afternoon edition normally only carries a single ad. FairSearch also reiterated that the ad was not pulled by itself nor Politico. Indeed, the ad continues to remain online in the archived copy of the morning edition.
Said FairSearch spokesperson Ben Hammer:
If Google wants to set the record straight on FairSearch’s Good to Know ads, it should correct the falsehoods presented on its own blog, not once, but twice. All ads in the ‘Good to Know’ campaign ran as submitted and were pre-approved by the outlets that ran them. None were ever pulled or modified. Those same ads remain online today, contrary to the false claim Google continues to peddle in a desperate attempt to take attention away from the content of the ads themselves.
In The End, The Ad Still Wasn’t Accurate
The mistake certainly is embarrassing for Google. You can bet that FairSearch will use it in the future as a further example of why Google shouldn’t be trusted. But what about the ad itself. Was it accurate?
FairSearch’s post says all the ads in its campaign were “thoroughly fact-checked,” but that post to me reads as if it’s only about the print ads. It makes no reference to the Politico campaign.
I asked FairSearch if it still stood by the particular claim it made in Politico about Google “selling information about users like you” but didn’t get an answer. However, FairSearch did say that it stood by all the ads in print and that ran in Politico, in a statement to WebProNews:
…both ads were approved by the publications that accepted them, and are accurate…
I’d disagree. Yes, Google does sell advertising. Those ads are targeted to people in various ways, including based on information that Google knows about those users.
But that’s far different than what FairSearch claimed in its ad, that Google sells information about users themselves.
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