Why Google wants to get closer to you (and why it bothers me more than Yahoo or Amazon’s personalization efforts)

Notice how much personalization Google has been putting out recently:
Personalized Search, the new release of the Toolbar has personalization, Google News now has recommended stories

Its clear why Google is doing this. Personalization is the next stage in the evolution of many products. It helps develop a closer relationship with users and get to know more about them. And most importantly, it provides a clear reason for Google to collect data and link it one individual. People do not want their web searches to be logged – partly because it does not provide any value for them. But we are fine with Amazon knowing a lot about us because there is a direct benefit in Amazon having our history. Google now wants the same type of relationship with you – its dear user. There are many business reasons for Google to pursue personalization.

From the user perspective, the impact is that one’s Google account on various services is interlinked. If you are signed into one Google service, then you are signed into all of them. This can feel creepy and invasive when you are not expecting it. Recently, I was logged into my Gtalk account and then went to look at Google News and on to some web searches. Suddenly I noticed that I was logged into Google. So now Google had an email address to link all the information they collect. I immediately signed out. This happened a few times. No, I make it a point to sign out of Gtalk every time I use it (which is not often).

On thinking about it, I often leave myself logged into Yahoo or Amazon. I spend money on both sites (I have Yahoo’s premium mail service and Flickr), and regularly buy books on Amazon. It does not bother me in the same manner that being logged into Google. At this point in time, I would not be comfortable with the same type of relationship with Google.


With Yahoo, it was always a Portal – a gateway to its many services. Earlier I used to start at My Yahoo page and go to its various services. The fact that the various Yahoo services are all under the one Yahoo umbrella is understood and accepted by the average user. In contrast, Google, by being the anti-Portal for the longest time, did not make the link between its various services that clear and obvious. (I know that it does have a personalized portal page now, but its too late in the game now. Many of us have different habits by now.). Additionally, I don’t use Yahoo search much, so feel less concerned about Yahoo logging my activities. Most of my information there is social (my Flickr photos, now my del.icio.us bookmarks) – that is all information that I am explicitly ok with sharing.

To make a contrast with Amazon – Amazon got into personalization pretty early on. Those days everyone was fascinated with personalization. “Amazon can tell you about more books you might like. Not by the same author or even in the same genre. Imagine that!” And there always has been a clear user benefit associated with Amazon’s collecting data.

Google forged a different type of relationship with its users. People used it for search primarily. Google prided itself on the simple, clean interface that did not scream: “Hello Rashmi, here are more web searches you might want to do, or news you might want to read.”. No, the essence of Google was – a search box and a submit button. Even now, I don’t use any of Google’s other products to the same degree. I use Google Maps and News, but the experience does not require Google to know who I am.

From the beginning, I have known that Google collects information, and never lets it go. I have been mostly ok with that (though recently even that is beginning to bother me – I have started removing Google cookies. This made it impossible for me to sign into Orkut when I got a message – luckily I don’t use Orkut much). There is no way that I am letting Google link the rest of the information about me with a username and email address.

Its too late in the game. The rules of my relationship with Google are already established. And it does not include your knowing who I am. So that is the way its going to be (unless you give me some truly compelling reason to change that).

Note. I know that technically Google does know who I am through the information it collects about me. That bothers me as well.

4 thoughts on “Why Google wants to get closer to you (and why it bothers me more than Yahoo or Amazon’s personalization efforts)

  1. I’ve been in the habit of cleaning out my google cookie for a long time now. Same reason I don’t stay logged in to these other services.

    I’m having trouble discerning exactly why Google’s ‘memory’ bothers you more than the others you mention, Google has branched into many activities after the search engine. Mail, talk, news, shopping. Why is their tracking specifically bothering you? Because you use more than one of their services?

    Don’t get me wrong, these information farming activities bother me deeply as well. What I always worry about is what happens to all this data. When a company folds, or gets hacked, or leaks, where does the data go? Or what happens when these companies merge? Does your profile get merged and more detailed? (yahoo/flickr?)

    We can safely assume that a lot of the traces one leaves on the net will outlast that person’s lifetime. So I make it a point of being careful what traces I leave.

  2. Michiel,

    I’m having trouble discerning exactly why Google’s ‘memory’ bothers you more than the others you mention,… “Mail, talk, news, shopping. Why is their tracking specifically bothering you? Because you use more than one of their services?”

    I have a hard time articulating that as clearly as I feel it. But I think its a question of need and trust. I have never used Gmail or Froogle. So, I don’t actually need their personalization for their services that I do use regularly. If they did create a service that was really useful and needed personalization, I might be willing to log more information. Its an exchange, and they have not convinced me I need to give them information to get a better service.

    Also, Google keeps the infomation forever (2037 I think?). Why? There is no clear answer to me except that they like to.

    But most of all, I think its a violation of the initial Google user experience. A search box and nothing more. Now they are a Portal by stealth. Suddenly you realize you are signed in. Personlization, in some sense, is better if its obstrusive. Amazon screaming “Welcome Rashmi” is annoying, but at least I always remember they they are collecting my information.

  3. Thank you for your clarification :)

    My feelings about privacy are almost on the instinctive level so for me, too, it is very hard to vocalise exactly why these things are ‘wrong’.

    And Google has changed, from a two-nerd small outfit with big plans to a contender in the global information market. I can see Google outgrowing Microsoft.

    Bottom line, Google is now a corporation. Corporations behave like psychopaths. (did you ever see the docu the corporation?

  4. I want to remove “gmailuser name” after sign out in gtalk.

    Everytime I used gtalk, I felt lack of privacy.
    Because everybody can see my gmailuser name after I sign out. So how can I handle this problem.

    With Thanks!


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