Google Privacy Change May Not Mean Much for Marketers, Yet

Google’s privacy policy changes illuminate the pros and cons of one company running a sprawling set of popular services across the Internet. The good for advertisers: in the future, they may be able to make better use of data for targeting ad campaigns across Google platforms. The not-so-good for Google: users, lawmakers, and privacy advocates may balk.

And for marketers, the ability to enhance ad targeting on platforms such as YouTube through search data won’t necessarily help it compete with Facebook.

Google said yesterday that starting March 1, 60 of the more than 70 privacy policies associated with its various platforms and services will be boiled down to one, simpler policy. Through the consolidation, a reality that already exists for Google is made more transparent.

“Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” wrote Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product and engineering at Google in a company blog post yesterday introducing the policy changes.

This could lead to Google searches informing YouTube ad targeting, or YouTube video search data being applied to Gmail ad targeting. Google will not combine login data relating to user activity in services like Gmail, YouTube, or Google search with DoubleClick data, however.

Google has already merged data across platforms in some cases; for instance, the company can already send someone a meeting reminder based on their location and Google Calendar data. So, at least for now, marketers shouldn’t expect new targeting features to result from the privacy policy consolidation. Instead, the consolidation helps to reinforce the unified relationship the company aims to enable across its products and the singular user experience it aims to create.

For some marketers, the policy consolidation raises questions about Google’s desire to compete with Facebook. If Google is under pressure to enable enhanced audience segmentation and targeting à la Facebook – as some surmise – it remains to be seen whether the potential changes at Google will have a true impact for advertisers.

“Google doesn’t do the best job of understanding someone’s interests,” suggested Eric Frenchman, a longtime search marketer and “digital ninja” at marketing consulting company PardonMyFrench. He suggested Google search data works best to inform immediate or near-immediate ad targeting.

“People are looking for information right then and there,” he said. So, if Google will now share search data across other properties like YouTube, it may not be beneficial when it comes to building a profile the way Facebook can. While Google understands who’s in-market for a laptop, it may not understand which sports teams or musical artists people like.

“I just think Facebook does a better job of knowing my interests over a long term,” said Frenchman. “Facebook knows I’m a [Bruce] Springsteen fan. Facebook knows I’m a New York Giants fan.”

For years, privacy watchdogs have suggested companies like Google simplify their privacy policies. “Regulators globally have been calling for shorter, simpler privacy policies – and having one policy covering many different products is now fairly standard across the web,” noted Whitten in the blog post.

Overall, the policy simplification is “a good step towards transparency about how Google is using user data,” said Erica Newland, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Google has been merging its products for a while now.”

While it leaves some questions about the company’s use of data in the future, the change raises “no red flags at this time,” she said.

If users don’t want to be tracked across platforms, they can conduct searches or watch YouTube videos without logging in, the company said. But that doesn’t work when it comes to Gmail or other services requiring login.

At least one lawmaker already indicated concern. “While it is undetermined at this point how the policy will impact specific Google services, it is imperative that users will be able to decide whether they want their information shared across the spectrum of Google’s offerings,” wrote Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who’s often among the first congressmen to speak out about digital privacy issues. “As the company continues to flesh out its plans, I look forward to evaluating the changes to ensure consumers’ privacy is protected.”

Markey has sponsored one of many pending privacy bills which call on the Federal Trade Commission to regulate privacy requirements related to online ad targeting and data.

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