When I first heard about the full body scanners being introduced at airport screening checkpoints, I was a little disturbed. The person viewing the scan could essentially see your naked silhouette. Granted, the scan reader would not be in the same room as you, nor would they ever actually see you in person, but I still felt it was an invasion of privacy.
Now I wonder if my problem was that I wasn’t getting much out of it. Certainly, the scanner has the potential to make air travel safer from terrorist attacks. But this is a very diffuse benefit and I have to say I was never really concerned about a terrorist attack on my plane given the very small number of airplane attacks.
Now here comes Google, which is delving into my life in a much more personal way than the x-ray scanners do. Google knows where I am (weather preferences & maps), what I’m doing (calendar), who I communicate with (Gmail & Gchat), what I’m reading (Google Reader & Google News), and what I’m interested in (Google Search, Google Reader, Gmail). And that’s just what I know Google knows.
But I find that I’m not as disturbed by this as I am by the idea of the photo above. I mean, I do get free (and customized) email, calendars, directions, weather, and more. I also happen to get advertising that is at least marginally relevant most of the time, and very unobtrusive. I will happily click on the sponsored link to reach my destination, even if the organic result is the top one.
For most consumers, I think the internet is still perceived as a free place. While we pay for a connection through our ISPs, wireless providers, or mooch off of free wifi/workplace access, the vast majority of things we do online are without cost. We watch videos, find new recipes, learn how to fix the AC control module in our car, communicate with friends and colleagues, and so on without ever spending a dime on those services. I love that I don’t need to rent a video, buy a recipe book, go see a mechanic, or pay for envelopes and postage (and find a post office).
In the end, of course we pay. Someone has to support the thousands of Google employees and hundreds of thousands of Google servers. Our eyeball time is our payment. But we don’t pay with cash and we don’t pay with time. Google doesn’t waste my time the way television does, but forcing me to occupy myself some other way during commercial breaks. It also doesn’t waste my time the way pop-up and pop-in ads do; I’m not forced to wade through irrelevant and, quite frankly, annoying information.
Because Google ads are customized to my searches, the text of my emails, the events in my calendar, etc., I’m generally not overwhelmed with information about lower car insurance when I don’t own a car (I contrast this with weather.com, which can customize by location, but it’s still all annoying junk advertising to me). Granted, every time a university’s name is mentioned in an email I get ads for calculating my chance of getting in or SAT/GRE/MCAT test prep services. But it’s not in the form of a dancing bear in the middle of my screen.
Until recently, I tried very hard to keep my email address private. I did not opt-in for emails from companies I frequently purchase from, but then recently realized that I actually do want information from them. Even though the benefit is far greater to them, I want to know when my favorite clothing store is having a sale, I like getting book recommendations from Amazon, and my mass transit alerts have helped me avoid a hellish commute more than once.
I would love it if Google could give me all of that info, and if its ads were of interest to me most of the time. I would remain logged in to Google all the time so it could track my preferences and in turn provide me with more and better recommendations. In this way, I see Google as a big brother, looking out for underpriveledged me who doesn’t have the same incredible knowledge of the big bad web.
The benefit to Google is the higher click through rate and the promise to advertizers that their message really is getting to people who care, which all translates to higher income. Here is my first stumbling block. They’re making money off of me. Big money.
How does that change the equation in the long term? If profits start to fall, what will ensure they don’t take advantage of me in order to boost sales?
More thoughts later…