After reading this intriguing article in the LA Times, I came to the conclusion that Google has far more ambitious plans than I originally thought. In their effort to build the perfect search engine — an oracle that can answer all of our questions, even answers that we didn't know about ourselves — Google is collecting every single digital footprint we leave online. They can afford to provide all their services for free. After all, our digital footprints are far more valuable.
What exactly are digital footprints, and how does Google get them? Imagine each one of Google’s offerings as a surveillance unit. Each service has a double purpose. First, to provide a useful service for “free,” and second to collect as much information about us as possible. Consider these few examples:
Search. The most obvious one. Our searches are simply our desires, questions, and passing whims at any moment in time — an image, a book, a blog, news report, map, product, etc. Computers can piece together all of our searches over time, not only to tell who we are, but potentially even predict what we might want in the future. Amazing, but unsettling too.
Office productivity. Google's computers scan our email, documents, RSS reading patterns, etc. The information we provide tells them what we like and also how often we like it and how our preferences change over time.
Collaboration. Whom do we chat with most often? Who are our friends? What are our professional interests? Google knows.
E-commerce. Now with Google Checkout they can also track our buying habits — where we buy, how frequently, and more.
Online Navigation. Google Analytics not only provides them with great information about the websites that install them, but more importantly about the users that visit them.
Online Advertising. With their Adwords and Adsense platform (and now the purchase of DoubleClick), every place where an ad is displayed is another opportunity to collect visitor information. How clever, no?
Multimedia Online. Think about what they got from the purchase of YouTube. The site may not be very profitable on its own, but as more people have access to broadband, they are spending more time watching interactive video. It’s an excellent place to collect more digital footprints.
I could write a few more examples, but I think the point I am trying to make is clear. We are getting all these services for free only in exchange for our most intimate and private information. What Google plans to do with the information is clear: they want to be the most dominant force for years to come. And so far, they are succeeding.
The funny thing is that Microsoft wants to beat Google, but it seems that they are clueless. They already have all the information Google is trying to collect so aggressively. More than 90% of the world's computer users use Microsoft operating systems and more than 80% uses Internet Explorer to browse the Web. On your Windows drive is your browsing history, e-mails both read and written, documents opened and received, friends’ names, family photos, and so on. Everything happens in the OS or through the web browser.
Your personal computer contains the holy grail: all your digital footprints. Google is trying to collect that information with many surveillance tools. If Microsoft were smarter, they might start leveraging what they already have and we’d see the tables turn drastically. Microsoft’s real challenge is getting the users’ permission to use it. For that, they need to learn a trick or two from Google and their “don’t be evil” stigma.
On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be giving them any ideas…