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Google is changing, for better or worse

Google’s large scale actions within the industry might be grabbing all the headlines, but it’s the seemingly small changes that might have an even greater impact. Over the years, and certainly during my tenure at Google, industry pundits questioned its “Don’t be Evil” mantra.

Google’s Philosophy has come under some severe scrutiny especially since it no longer “does one thing really well” as its mission of “organising the world’s information & making it universally accessible and useful” encourages Google to broaden its scope. You’ve got to wonder what a self-driving car has to do with that. The backlash to the scope broadening has even led Google to place a bar on the right of its philosophy:

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Certainly Google’s “focus on the user and the rest will follow” philosophy has taken a knock with the introduction of Gmail Logout Ads and SSL encryption. This week users started noticing that when they logged out of Gmail they were starting to see adverts that had no relevance to their Gmail activity at all.

One of the drawcards of the free Gmail service was that its revenue driver was ads based on the content of your email. Now, Google has gone one obtrusive step further by offering image ads when your email contains images:

Questions abound as to whether Google’s user-centric approach has been compromised by the need to drive more revenue and we’ve got to wonder whether we will see Google adopt the style of ad-cluttered search engines prior to the early dotcom boom. As an aside, Google+ is starting to become littered with animated .gifs — reminiscent of the mish-mash designs of the Geocities era.

The recent announcement that Google is going to start encrypting searches and outbound links by default with SSL search adds further impetus to the idea that Google is no longer just in it for the user. Whilst privacy advocates like @singe will be overjoyed with it, what the update forces is the monetisation of Google’s search query data. Sites which would have been able to see “referrer” data, the actual query that got the user to the site, won’t be able to see it anymore.

In Google’s defence, the move is aimed at creating better user privacy as they intend to protect the personalised results they deliver, but this intention goes awry when Google still allows PPC advertisers to see the search query data. Google Analytics users will still be able to see aggregated data but not being able to see the search query means that site owners and SEO operators can’t direct the traffic to the right landing pages on their sites.

Backlash around this update has centred around the themes that Google is hypocritical for wanting to create search query privacy when it collects data anonymously for its “Remarketing” product; and that money takes precedence over privacy with analyst Joost de Volk stating in his article “Google Whores Out Users With False Privacy Claims“:

Google cares about your privacy, unless they make money on you, then they don’t. The fact is that due to this change, AdWords gets favored over organic results. Once again, Google gets to claim that it cares about your privacy and pulls a major public “stunt”. The issue is, they don’t care about your privacy enough to not give that data to their advertisers.

One of the workarounds, however, is the integration of Google’s Webmaster Tools with Analytics. The integration allows users to see the top 1 000 search queries but it doesn’t allow SEO technicians to segment the traffic and conversion data.

On the bright side, Google’s launch of Flow Visualisation in Google Analytics creates the ability to see how people are using websites in terms of where they are visiting, how many people stay on site, how many people visit a site’s shopping cart and more. One has to wonder though, whether a positive change to Analytics outweighs the fallout from Gmail Logout ads and SSL encryption.

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