Our Digital Footprints: Google's (and Microsoft’s) most valuable asset

searchengine_footprints.jpgAfter 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Collaboration. Whom do we chat with most often? Who are our friends? What are our professional interests? Google knows.

  4. E-commerce. Now with Google Checkout they can also track our buying habits — where we buy, how frequently, and more.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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…


16 replies
    • Mutiny Design
      Mutiny Design says:

      As Hamlet said in the post before this or maybe it was the one before that, Google will probably add more conditions to rankings – such as time spent on site etc. The more conditions you can sucessfuly exploit the more likely you will be to rank on people's personalised results.

      I guess over a little time, it would become obvious what the main factors are and what are the most popular trends and youw ould just have to go with them, or come up with some elaborate, multi-front spamming system.

      Also, Hamlet, do you have any ideaas on what Google may do regarding links? Will they marginilise them? Or will they still be a large ranking factor?

      • Hamlet Batista
        Hamlet Batista says:

        Also, Hamlet, do you have any ideaas on what Google may do regarding links? Will they marginilise them? Or will they still be a large ranking factor?

        Links will always be very useful. As any other quality signal their weight in the formula will depend on how much Google can trust them vs other factors.

  1. Mutiny Design
    Mutiny Design says:

    Very interesting. Do you think that Google will use this information to influence search results globally, or do you think that they will use it to tailor search results to the individual? – I have heard they are doing this already on a small scale.

    My opinion is if they use the data to influence search results globally that they will probably make a big mess, but if they use it to tailor results to the individual they will probably trample the market.

    If they tailor results to the individual, this will make it much harder for serial spammers to whack the SERPs. They would have no way of getting their site on top for everyone. But, if the results are influenced globally you could work out patterns of what you need to do to spam your way up.

    One thing you haven't mentioned so far is 'traffic'. I think if Google also used the volume of traffic a site gets (like Alexa) to help rank sites it would force sites to increase their level of quality in order to rank. For example, for the targeted search term of my main site it will take me a long time to beat the couple of sites above me because they have 10,000’s of links with the same link text, but I have about 5 – 10 times more traffic than them because I have some quality content on the site and they are 100% commercial. Then you can look at other sites that don’t rank for the term and have much more traffic than me because they have some much more link bait.

  2. Paul Montwill
    Paul Montwill says:

    Because we perceive Google as a 'user-friendly' company then we allow them to do a lot with our data and we are not bothered as we buy it for free. When Google launched Gmail there were a lot of complaints about breaching privacy rights etc. but as soon as people find out how useful Gmail is, it got quiet.
    Google proved many times that honesty and people are more important for them than money. They have been protecting their rules for years now but I am wondering if this will last forever. Do you believe Google are honest and we can trust them?
    Hamlet, you add a picture to every post now. Looks much better and it is easier to memorize!

  3. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:

    I think they are already using the information for personalized search and to improve the organic search and their ad network.

    Personalized search at a massive scale will definitely make it harder to spam the search engines.

    You bring an excellent point when you mentioned traffic. I personally think quality traffic will become a more dominant factor than links in the future. I am still doing some serious research and I need more time to discuss this in more detail

  4. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:


    MS's evil stigma is hard to get rid off. Google is actually banking on it.

    Microsoft now wants to offer personalized ads by mining information on our hard disks. The difference with Google is that Google offers something useful for free as a bait. Microsoft on the other hand requires you to pay for all their products and services. As they are so good at copying ideas, wouldn't it be smart to copy the free bait idea as well?

  5. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:

    Do you believe Google are honest and we can trust them?
    Hamlet, you add a picture to every post now. Looks much better and it is easier to memorize!

    Paul – Google is a for profit corporation. I don't think their plans are altruistic. They want the same MS wants: money and power. They are proven to be wiser than MS, though.

    I use all their services, and I also use MS's. They are useful, but you need to understand that GG's are not really free. The price you pay is the information you let them collect from you.

    I'm glad you like the graphics. I will try to get the posts done early, so that I can get a hold of my designer before he leaves for the day.

  6. Paul Montwill
    Paul Montwill says:

    Sure, Hamlet but I think Brin and Page have different priorities. Cash is important but for them building the tools for people is the highest priority. This is my conclusion after reading "The Google Story".
    Maybe I am just naive, but:
    1. They (Brin and Page) didn't earn much money for the first years and were forced by two VCs to bring revenue generating mechanism in place.
    2. They control the company.
    3. When starting on Wall Street they put their rules on the table to make shares available for everyone.
    4. They seems to be more excited about the whole idea of building a perfect Search Engine than making money. They already have a lot.
    5. Maybe I am again naive but I believe in their good intentions. You can earn a lot of money and still have rules that will allow you not to make exceptions and sacrifice things you believe in.
    6. In Google, if somebody comes with a great idea they are not bother about the revenue stream in the first place. I can see many great ideas killed in the MS type businesses because the first quiestion was – where is the money.

    I know they make hudge money and collect our data everywhere – just yesterday I realized they collect our postcodes when setting up weather forecast on iGoogle. Even Google Checkout is to control our spendings.

    But still, I believe that if they really work using the model creativity users and money afterwords instead of revenue is the top priority, it is better for us.

    Your comment will be highly appreciated. Maybe somebody need to open my eyes :-)

    On the other hand, I am a bit affraid about how much data they will have about in a few years.

    And the last quiestion, do you think it is possible to build all these Google system using MS strategy?

  7. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:


    What you explain is the main reason why they are proven to be smarter than Microsoft. They pursue the same goal as I said, but they are clearly visionaries.

    I've learned myself that people that look for money first are the ones who usually fail to get it. Remember what I said about sharing. The more you give the more people trust you. The more they listen to you. Give people what they want and they will always come knocking on your door.

    Google has done many things right. They give a lot of really useful tools and services for free. Instead of copying MS model of selling software and services, they decided to give it away for free and make money with a extremely efficient advertising model.

    They have made many unpopular changes to the Adwords system. They just recently started providing customer service. Advertisers have complained about it, but yet they still get the lion's share of the Ad market. Why? Because their focus in on the search users. As long as everybody uses them, they have the leverage.

    Please mention just one of their free services that you think is altruistic and I'm sure I can show how they can profit from it.


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