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How Google Could Have Improved Its Privacy Change Announcement

  |  February 10, 2012   |  Comments

A lesson about how better to communicate sensitive changes.

When I heard that Google had simplified its privacy policy, I got that warm, fuzzy feeling I always get when a chunk of legalese passes from this world. Google took the right approach in eliminating redundancies and using plain language to clarify its policy, and it reads, "By folding more than 60 product-specific privacy policies into our main Google one, we're explaining our privacy commitments to users of those products in 85% fewer words." This will encourage a lot more people to actually read the privacy policy and see how Google is using their information.

But this is Google, and pretty much any change it makes is going to cause some anxiety. In this case, the simplified privacy policy reflects a change that Google is making on the back end: namely, that it will share information about you across its entire portfolio of products. Google hopes this will create a better customer experience, as it describes here:

"For example, today we make it easy for a signed-in user to immediately add an appointment to her Calendar when a message in Gmail looks like it's about a meeting. As a signed-in user she can also read a Google Docs document right in her Gmail, rather than having to leave Gmail to read the document. Our ability to share information for one account across services also allows signed-in users to use Google+'s sharing feature - called "circles" - to send directions to family and friends without leaving Google Maps."

Another projected result is that Google will have a more comprehensive view of your online activity, which it can use to target ads to you. Many find this disturbing. First techies, then journalists, then politicians started clamoring about how the new policy presents a threat to users' privacy and violates the trust users had placed in Google. Even Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon, with a new ad casting doubt on the purity of Google's intentions and pointing to its own services as a privacy-friendly alternative.

Google responded to these concerns in several blog posts and in a letter to a group of congressmen who had made inquiries. Google made several excellent points in this letter, including:

  • Google isn't collecting any new information about you or publicizing any of your information.
  • Under the old privacy policies, most Google services already shared information with each other.
  • Google has made every effort to be transparent and communicate this change openly.
  • The change will lead to a seamless experience for users of Google products.

This last point is important because it's the primary reason for the policy change. Google says, "We'll treat that user as a single entity across all our services, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience." This is something that most businesses work hard to achieve, and it's something we usually recommend to our clients. The fewer roadblocks a customer faces, the better. Consider how many frustrating customer experiences you've had because the different parts of a business didn't treat you as a single entity or have a comprehensive view of your relationship with them.

Many skeptics and critics argue that advertisers are the real beneficiaries of this change because they will be able to target their ads more precisely to potential customers. This is true, but that's always the bargain with Google. We let Google show us ads, and in return, it provides us with great web and email services - for free. The only difference is that now we may see more ads that actually interest us.

Unfortunately, Google didn't help its case with the way it announced this change. Google's message was, "Our privacy policy has improved - here are some of the implications for our services." The message should have been, "Our services have improved - here are some of the implications for our privacy policy."

This might sound like nitpicking. But by putting the privacy policy in the spotlight, Google awkwardly and unintentionally set off alarm bells and lost most of the buzz it should have received for simplifying its experience. Online privacy is a sensitive subject, and once it's brought up, it casts a shadow over any subsequent message.

Maybe in a perfect world, where users were more curious than suspicious, I'd say Google took the correct approach by putting the privacy implications front and center. But in this world, the framing of your message matters as much as the content of your message. Google didn't frame this right, and it only exacerbated the backlash it was sure to encounter.

I think Google is still keeping true to its "Don't be evil" mantra. It provided simple tools like Google Dashboard, where you can see (and edit or delete) the information it has about you. And you are perfectly free to use almost any of its services without logging in. That's a lot more than most companies do to protect your privacy, and it's certainly more than one of its largest competitors, Facebook, is doing. So let's give Google credit for simplifying the experiences it offers and its documents. Let's also learn a lesson from the company about how better to communicate sensitive changes.


Sarah Negugogor

As a senior information architect in Siegel+Gale's Simplification practice, Sarah Negugogor creates clear, user-centered communications that connect with their audience.

Sarah has long been intrigued by the challenge of how to translate complex concepts, particularly scientific and technical information, into plain language that everyone can understand.

As a writer at Carnegie Mellon University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Sarah developed communications that explained the universities’ research in clear, engaging language. Most recently, she honed her online information design and web writing skills as web services manager for The Segal Company.

Sarah holds an M.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. in English from Oberlin College. She currently lives in Brooklyn under the reign of a French bulldog.

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