How much Google knows



Updated on December 6, 2020
Topics: , ,
5 min well spent

From Reuters:

Google was sued on Tuesday [June 2nd, added by me] in a proposed class action accusing the internet search company of illegally invading the privacy of millions of users by pervasively tracking their internet use through browsers set in “private” mode.

The lawsuit seeks at least $5 billion, accusing the Alphabet Inc unit of surreptitiously collecting information about what people view online and where they browse, despite their using what Google calls Incognito mode.

According to the complaint filed in the federal court in San Jose, California, Google gathers data through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager and other applications and website plug-ins, including smartphone apps, regardless of whether users click on Google-supported ads. This helps Google learn about users’ friends, hobbies, favorite foods, shopping habits, and even the “most intimate and potentially embarrassing things” they search for online, the complaint said.

We as Marketers have suspected Google using Google Analytics scripts and other apps to understand user behavior and feed algorithms for quite a while. This accusation, however, targets a problem that exists for quite a while: the misunderstanding of what an incognito browser does.

From the class action suit:

As discussed in more detail below, Google tracks and collects consumer browsing history and other web activity data no matter what safeguards consumers undertake to protect their data privacy. Indeed, even when Google users launch a web browser with “private browsing mode” activated (as Google recommends to users wishing to browse the web privately), Google nevertheless tracks the users’ browsing data and other identifying information.

This is not new. Incognito browsers have never done what users think they do. 40% of people think that the browser incognito mode prevents websites and other players to track them. That’s not the case. You’re not anonymous. Instead, incognito simply doesn’t store cookies at the end of the session. It deletes session data in your browser when you close the window but you’re still perfectly traceable. According to ZNET, Google promised to fix this issue in 2019 but didn’t. Some sites even block incognito users.

For Google, there are tons of avenues to track people:

  • Google Analytics tracking pixel on websites
  • Google Sign-in button
  • Google Ad Manager
  • Various other applications and plug-ins

Google accomplishes its surreptitious tracking through means that include: GoogleAnalytics, Google Ad Manager, and various other application and website plug-ins, such as Google applications on mobile devices and the “Google Sign-In button” for websites. When an internet user visits a webpage or opens an app that uses such services (over 70% of all online publishers use such a service), Google receives detailed, personal information such as the user’s IP address (which may provide geographic information), what the user is viewing, what the user last viewed, and details about the user’s hardware.

The problem – and this is what Google is sued for – is that people don’t understand how incognito works (the survey I linked to above proves it) and that Google gives people a false picture of reality.

Google states in its documentation:

and

How private browsing works:

Google does state that searches or visits won’t be saved on users’ devices but they don’t mention that users will still be traceable.

It will be very interesting to see how this class action suit plays out. However, it brings back the good old notion of what Google knows about you. And the answer is: a lot.

The best way to see for yourself is to look at your Google my activity record of stored information.

On top of that, there’s a section called “more activity”. It’s well-hidden (for a reason), but on https://myactivity.google.com/more-activity, you can see all the other sources of data Google takes into account., such as Youtube, Play Store, Maps, etc.

It ties nicely with a patent about User-sensitive PageRank that I wrote about in the light of Prabhakar Raghavan leading Search.

The idea of Authority value is to blend user behavior data with classic PageRank models.

If Google can trace our searches and other data perfectly, I reckon they can create a profile of users that would allow them to understand their expertise in a field. As a result, maybe certain visits do matter more than others?

Either way, I expect Google’s tracking across several platforms to increase and impact organic search more over time. I’ll publish a full article on this topic, which I call platform confluence, on Monday.