Grading Google's Marketing Practices Based On Google's Standards?

The following is a guest post by Slaven Radic.

The Google Buzz team has had quite a week. Their new product quickly lived up to its name, though mostly for the wrong reasons, generating buzz about its own privacy issues. Calling the original Google Buzz privacy settings lax would be a gross understatement. It created a storm of complaints, best put in perspective by Harriet Jacobs in her F*ck You, Google piece.

In short, when you logged into your Gmail account Google simply took all of your frequent contacts and mashed them up into an active social network without much input from people they were connecting. If you exchanged a lot of emails with your editor and your under-cover sources from the same Gmail account, now they were connected through your public profile if you didn't happen to catch the Buzz opt-out checkbox. Or what about using the same Gmail account for emailing your husband and your boyfriend? Well now they're introduced - you're welcome.

Yes, sounds like a pretty naïve and reckless way to implement a major feature but Google protested that they just wanted to help and meant no evil. After all, their CEO Eric Schmidt had an interesting take on expectations for privacy online: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place". That was said nary two months before Google Buzz launched - I guess people like Harriet Jacobs and her abusive ex-husband just didn't listen.

Oops, Our Bad: Thanks For All the Users...

Since the launch, Google has done an amazingly quick about-face and pledged to do better. The latest set of changes make signing up for Buzz a tangibly more transparent experience, probably what it should have been at launch time. The press has mostly applauded their quick response and patted Google on the back for their responsiveness and keen focus on Gmail user experience.

But let's see what Google's naiveté about privacy issues meant for Google Buzz:

  • 9 million posts and comments
  • 300,000 mobile check-ins per day
  • Buzz already rivals Twitter for sheer network size

Those are some pretty impressive numbers for any online launch, but to achieve this in under three days is just unheard of. Actually, there are businesses that do generate this level of interests from their prospects in that short of a time-frame and Gmail deals with them on a daily basis: spammers.

The '9 Million-Post' Question

The question is did Google simply make a "mistake" and not consider these fairly serious privacy issues, or did the massive amount of spam Gmail churns through each day actually demonstrate effectiveness of a new business model?

The former is hard to believe when you consider the army of privacy lawyers Google has and their job to review privacy considerations in revenue-generating AdSense programs. This is especially critical in Gmail, where you are shown ads based on emails you exchange. Gmail achieves this by reading through all your email and matching you up with advertisers interested in addressing your daily struggles. After the initial outrage over this concept a few years ago most users have resigned to trust Google that they have their best interests in mind.

Your Trust, Google's Toilet Paper

Google Buzz violates this trust in a serious way. In light of Google's experience in this field, it is hard not to take Google's mea culpa with a huge dose of skepticism. After all, if Google had made Buzz an opt-in service - something that users had to enable rather than be tricked into joining - they would be just another social network trying to compete with Facebook and Twitter.

Leveraging millions of Gmail users was a shortcut simply too tempting to avoid. The fact that Google decided to revise Google Buzz activation process over the weekend is simply a red herring: they only needed a few days to convert some of the hundred million plus Gmail users into millions of Buzz users, and become the de-facto Twitter competitor over a single long weekend.

Google "fixing" this privacy snafu a few days later is equivalent to spammers adding an "Unsubscribe" link to an email that's already done its damage.

The strong impression from the last few days is that Gmail users were a pawn in a very cynical game: Google trying desperately to become a player in the social networking space, after the Orkut launch and their acquisition of a handful of other companies in this space failed to produce results.

We're Not Evil

This is a tough act to pull off when your motto is Don't Be Evil. It's been said that eventually Google's shareholders will push it to make product moves and decisions that end up hurting its brand in a quest for monetization. It will be interesting to see if Google comes out of this with their motto intact.

Published: February 16, 2010 by Aaron Wall in google


Melissa Gonzalez
February 16, 2010 - 9:41pm

I understand the frustration with Google but since I have not been affected by the Google Buzz privacy issues I really can't complain. Besides the privacy issues, and not realizing the effects beforehand, I have no complains on Google Buzz, I think its a cool functionality to have integrated in your Gmail.

Thanks for the post.

February 16, 2010 - 10:04pm

The "didn't affect me" mentality is about as apathetic as you can get. Sad really. :(

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. - Edmund Burke

February 17, 2010 - 3:41pm

Google wields way to much power over information flow for my liking and most folks do not see any issue with surrendering privacy to a "trusted" name like Google. I would love to see a viable open source provider emerge in the search space and have a mass exodus occur away from the hoarders and scrapers of content. Then again, I would also like to live in a country where there was no such thing as The Patriot Act and a Supreme Court in bed with corporate lobbyists.

February 17, 2010 - 7:54pm

Excellent essay - thanks Slaven.

re: the "didn't affect me" mentality there will always be people who take company sponsored "vacations", live in "corporate housing" and believe what they read in the "local newspaper". That's how this world (currently) works.

No different than the people who consume so much sugar and salt in their foods they can't really taste much else anymore (hence, nothing else matters). Or people who eat large quantities of bulky processed foods shamefully low in nutrients. They live, yet know not life. To ask them their opinions on matter of life, is folly, no?

February 17, 2010 - 11:35pm

Sheesh you got me feeling guilty about my diet. But it is something I need to work on! ;)

February 18, 2010 - 4:03am

I was going to write a rant about how Google deliberately abused Gmail user's privacy rights, but then.....since it didn't affect Melissa Gonzalez, I've changed my mind about Buzz. I think it's OK. Thank God it didn't affect Melissa.

February 18, 2010 - 7:21pm

I don't really understand the apathy either - think about this: if Microsoft had done this exact same thing with all of their Hotmail users we'd be watching a real-life lynch mob gather in Redmond looking for blood...

February 19, 2010 - 5:20am

"Don't Be Evil".

If only words were deeds.

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