Google is at the center of the Internet. As we embraced its motto, “Don’t be evil,” we accepted the embrace of its ubiquity. And for most of us, Google has had a hand in some of the big decisions we’ve made in the last several years: which car we bought, what neighborhood we decided to move to, would Jessica Simpson wear this. Ads by Google turn up on the sites we visit most often, and they’re acceptably prescient, touting products and services related to the things we’ve searched for on the Web.
When Yahoo and Microsoft announced their Internet search partnership in July 2009, Google had an estimated 65% market share of all search advertising on the Web. Advertisers were delighted by the Yahoo-Microsoft announcement because with two smaller players acting together as a bigger… small player, the possibility presented itself of driving down the cost of online advertising.
But while a bell may have sounded, Google’s next round in the fight for control of the Internet isn’t with Yahoo-Microsoft. In fact it isn’t in the search arena at all. Google faces a formidable foe in Facebook.
Traditional Search vs. Social Media
Facebook has over 300 million users, all of whom contribute various types of personal information to over 50,000 servers in what could be considered a virtual Internet separate from the one we browse without signing in. This information, or user-generated content (UGC), is username and password protected, and Facebook users share it at a rate of over 140 million pieces each day. And search engines like Google can’t touch it.
This information is highly personal: names, birthdays, interests and activities, pictures, videos, reading lists, who we poked (a Facebook term). And it’s accompanied by an inherently intricate map of Facebook relationships that in six degrees or less ties everyone to Kevin Bacon. As far as marketers are concerned, this highly personal information is the most valuable information on the Internet.
Google, on the other hand, has controlled Internet search and advertising by providing us information that is relatively impersonal. Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) are presumably objective, providing links to websites that best relate to search terms we type into the Google search field. Google ads, the ones tucked in the sidebars and footers of sites across the Web, are served to us based on the content contained on each of those sites, as well as on our geographical location, and even our browsing history. Google ads relate to where we are and where we go online.
This is traditional search. It’s cut and dry. Type in “my dog has fleas” and you’ll not only learn how to rid your struggling pet of its discomfort, you’ll see you can have a remedy shipped to your home or office, free shipping, if you “click here.”
This is not to say Google knows nothing about you. It does. When you perform a search on Google, not only does it collect information about your search query, it logs your IP address and places a cookie on your computer that tells Google your “browsing preferences.” All in the name of making your next search experience a better one. For instance, Google knows:
- your IP address (if you take your computer to the coffee shop, your IP address will be different than your IP address at home)
- where you’re physically located
- who your Internet Service Provider is
- what browser and operating system you’re using
- the color resolution of your monitor
- your connection speed
- the version of Flash you have on your computer
But this type of information is not uniquely personal. Google doesn’t know your name, who your friends are, that you like to hike and bike, that you read Ayn Rand and Anne Rice, that your political views are complicated, or what your status is. Can you imagine the kinds of targeted ads Google would deliver to you if they knew these things?
Facebook has a 300 million-user head start over Google. They know all this stuff about you. But before you get too concerned, understand they’ve learned the hard way how sensitive your personal information is. Longtime users of Facebook will remember the time the company tried to slip ads onto its users’ news feeds. In a display of the democracy we’ve come to expect from well-formed communities, the Facebook community shut this down with vehement cries of protest. A similar thing happened again when, in February 2009, Facebook changed its user agreement to give the company the right to use, in perpetuity, all information shared by its users on the site, even after users closed their accounts. The story went viral and Facebook brass quickly caved.
The use of personal information for selling ads remains a touchy matter. Personal information allows advertisers to target specific individuals based on their interests and activities. It’s called behavioral targeting. Facebook and the marketers they sell ads to must convince us that by using our personal information they will only enhance our experience online, not hurt it, while continuing to meet our privacy needs.
Face it, you’re going to encounter ads when you browse the Web. With behavioral targeting, the ads you see take on much more meaning for you. Your Web experience becomes more enhanced as the ads you see become specifically tailored to the things you like, and unwanted advertisers begin to fall away. Ads for teeth whitening and miracle mops are replaced with ones that match your interests, interests like the ones you list in your Facebook profile. The next time you’re on Facebook, check out the three ads in the right column. Then look at the interests and activities you’ve listed in your profile, or retrace your recent activities on Facebook. There’s a strong correlation. This is behavioral targeting. And it’s reshaping advertising on the Web. Put it this way: it has Google ogling.
At the end of 2008, Facebook launched Connect, an initiative that lets its users enjoy their Facebook relationships on other websites. When you visit Digg, Gawker, CitySearch, USA Today and tens of thousands of other sites, you can sign in with your Facebook username and password and discover what your friends find interesting on that particular site. In early 2009, Facebook released its Open Stream api google search. This initiative lets web developers use Facebook’s activity stream within the applications and services they offer on their own websites. Facebook users can now update their status, upload pictures and perform other Facebook activities on sites other than Facebook. Google has entered the running with Wave, a social networking and collaborative platform that gets Google into the game of social media, and collecting personal information.
Initiatives like Connect, Open Stream and Wave are opening the door for behavioral targeting, allowing profile information to be brokered to non-originating sites for more personal, enhanced web experiences.
None of us wants Big Brother looking in. Our time on the Web is personal, and we often use it to leverage our offline experiences, which can be even more personal. As the Internet has grown, and as new technologies have allowed for even greater leverage, we’ve become mindful of the types of relationships that can exist online. Communities like Facebook for the most part offer a reprieve from spammers and viruses, and so we’re reluctant to let the part of the Internet we’ve claimed for ourselves be opened to marketers who use our personal information.
As Facebook, Google and others endeavor to make our lives better, the Web will become increasingly more organic, more intuitive. More social. Initiatives like Connect, Open Stream and Wave, which today might make us feel like we’re in the crosshairs, are already beginning to usher in a better Internet, your Internet, the one that knows you would rather get one good opinion from your Facebook community than thousands from a search engine.