You’ve been considering buying a new pair of headphones for a while, but aren’t quite sure where to start looking. You could visit an electronics store in person or maybe call up a friend and ask for their advice, but you settle for a simple Google search. Instead of the search merely revealing possible purchase options, however, you are startled to see your friends’ names and pictures alongside their own personal reviews of their favorite headphones. That’s right: Personalized ad endorsements are coming to Google.
The policy isn’t all that different from how Facebook utilizes its users’ “likes” to promote certain products and services. If you “like” a product or company on Facebook, the site will use that information to make you a sponsor for that product. An ad will soon begin to surface on your Facebook friends’ newsfeeds saying that you liked this product — so hey, why don’t your friends like it too?
The strategy behind this tactic revolves around the fact that recommendations from people you know resonate much more strongly with a potential buyer than random reviewers on the web. It might be helpful for people to see reviews from real people whom they actually trust — these personalized endorsements could facilitate a lot of decision-making about things such as where to go for dinner, which new car to buy or which headphones to purchase.
At least, that’s what Google thinks. “We want to give you — and your friends and connections — the most useful information. Recommendations from people you know really help,” Google said in its announcement.
Despite the usefulness that personalized endorsements could provide to Google users, the new policy is not only an invasion of privacy, but also a little tacky.
In regards to privacy, Google+ users probably never imagined that their reviews would one day be used to help Google profit and to help advertisers sell a product. Their words and online support for products were written when no such endorsement policy existed, and had Google+ users known their words could one day be much more visible in Google searches, they might have worded a review differently or simply not written one at all.
Furthermore, Google’s new plan is very clearly a way for the firm to use their 190 million Google+ users to help them make even more money in the advertising space. Their dedicated users will soon become company spokespeople, inadvertently working for Google to help advertisers make a sale. Again, it seems more than a little tasteless.
I have to admit, however, that Google handled their decision in a commendable way. The company announced the change a full month before it is set to take effect, giving users plenty of time to decide whether or not they are comfortable with sharing their reviews with others. Google has made it surprisingly easy to opt out of the policy: If you are a Google+ user, simply go to the settings page on your account called “Shared Endorsements.” From there, users can uncheck the box that gives Google explicit permission to use their content.
But even if unwilling users don’t have to partake in the sponsorship, the company’s new policy still raises questions and doubts about online data collection by companies such as Google. If a review you wrote five years ago on a YouTube video has the potential to surface in your friends’ Google searches, you have to wonder what other personal data is available, accessible and exploitable by other industry giants.
Cecilia Callas is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column “Tech Talk” runs Wednesdays.
Follow Cecilia on Twitter @ceciliacallas