I have read a few of the reviews testers have posted about the Gmail beta, seen where adverts and web matches are proposed to be placed and read a few of the discussions in this forum and on various news and related sites.
I have been trying to think about the proposed service from the points of view of a number of people who will be affected by it, and have tried to explain some of that thinking with this post which I hope will add to the debate of the issues raised by the proposed service.
For me the key issues worthy of debate from these angles are email scanning for commercial profit at present by advertising against that content and privacy issues. Data retention is an issue I leave for those who know better about it. Take away email scanning and its potential invasion of private and commercial privacy and what is left is just another web-mail service that I would not be that interested in debating the issues of.
1. A question from the point of view of a commercial advertiser:
Qualification [who am I] In this role my company advertises our products and services using various on and offline channels and would be interested in targeting the likely users of various web-mail services such as the proposed Gmail, existing Yahoo, Hotmail etc.
1.1) Can I target my advertising into Gmail account holders inboxes so that my adverts appear when Gmail users are reading correspondence from a specific competitor of mine whom I want to target?
1.2) If the answer to 1.1 is yes: then as an advertiser I will of course be interested to use it as I can target my promotions specifically against my enemies customers and prospects in an intimate way similar to the non public email which my target sent which will trigger my advert. However I will probably modify my own use of email as a defence against my competitors doing the same to me in return and may proactively use other communication to a greater extent as means to gain a comparative advantage and retain at least one “confidential channel” with my clients.
1.3) If the answer to 1.1 is no: then why not and what would be the point of Gmail targeted advertising? The key point for me as an advertiser of being able to target email readers is to be able to target people reading specific types and groups of emails with my targeted adverts relevant to my commercial interests. So if I cannot target as specifically as I mentioned above I wont be so interested in ploughing my or my client’s money into this advertising channel.
2. The same question viewed from the point of view of a commercial email user:
Qualification [who am I] In this role I am any business that communicates with its customer and prospective customer base via non-public email across telephone networks whose email messages are likely to find their way into the Gmail interface.
I may include non-disclosure agreements in my terms of service for dealing with clients in some or many cases and may have some expectation that my emails are a person-to-person communication not to be disclosed or given access to wider parties without my written consent.
There is usually a valid reason why I am sending these messages via email rather than posting them in public view on my website as I don’t currently expect anyone commercially to be significantly accessing my non-public email correspondence which may contain low value passwords, detailed instructions, data that at some level has some privacy between myself and the person I am sending it to. (Obviously its not advisable to send any top level privacy information such as Pin numbers or credit card numbers or any bank account details via normal email but there are lots of people that still do this. I wonder if gaming this aspect via adwords / Gmail could be interesting to people with bad agendas - if you get a positive match then there is an account of that number?).
2.1) If the answer to 1.1 is yes: I will certainly not want my communications with customers to come significantly into the realm of Google’s Gmail system because my competitors (with whom I am basically engaged in competition for survival) will be able to gain easy access to my confidential customer base just as easily as if I had simply posted their real names and contact details to my website for them to download.
The fact that I cannot “opt out of Gmail” in any meaningful way because of the potential ease of redirecting messages to the interface or future potential to import messages on mass disturbs me considerably as a threat to my interests and is now forcing me to think of other ways of communicating with my confidential customer base either old or new, which can not become so incredibly easily accessible to my competition.
2.2) If the answer to 1.1 is at this stage no: it still does not gain my trust as a commercial email user. If I were running an established Gmail service I would certainly be interested to work to enable this level of targeting in the interests of my advertisers and we already I think know that new adverts are to be served as time goes by and users re access their old emails.
Google has I think said that ads served next to a mail will not be stored and served the same each time. This makes perfect sense and it is not how Adwords itself works, each time of serving the data is re scanned and suitable matches found from available and “in play” adverts at that time.
So in effect my competitors can continue easily to repeatedly target my customers at any later date with any new angle they wish to present to my customer base over time.
In fact my competitors can probably arrange to have a less intrusive dialog with my specific customer base using regularly changed Adwords adverts to the right of my company emails in the Gmail interface than I can by sending repeated email messages which could soon be seen as intrusive or even commercial spam.
So advertisers using Adwords towards Gmail users would be able to continuously target my clients by varying their ads without triggering any spam filter (as they are acting in Google’s commercial interest when they do this) but were my company to send repeated emails to communicate with my clients in a similar way it is quite reasonable and likely to assume that my communications (on which Google would not be making direct income) would be tagged as spam.
2.3) Add to this that Google has recently changed its policy on allowing advertisers to target trademarks as triggers for their adverts in the US and Canadian markets.
They are not saying that it is legal to target trademarks owned by others, only that trademark owners will have to take action against people targeting their trademarks as trigger words themselves.
Now competitors are going to be able to serve adverts by careful targeting of terms or phrases which are low on internet search frequency but high in email contents (see my post 38 of the thread here [webmasterworld.com...] into private Gmail interfaces.
Google has I think stated that no record of adverts served against specific Gmail content is to be kept, so it will be next to impossible for me for example as a trademark owner to police abuse of my trademarks in this semi private advertising medium that is proposed as Gmail.
You can see how easily it could be for my competitors to target my clients directly when in the previous sanctity of their personal email client by abusing my trademarks in such a way that I would not be able to discover they are even doing this because Google will not maintain a record of adverts served by the email which triggered them.
This incidentally seems to make trust in Google’s billing record quite a hard thing for advertisers to swallow .. so where were those impressions? … erm we don’t know - trust us - we do no evil J we did show the adverts .. oh where? .. we can’t tell you … anywhere else you could expect to be laughed out of court with such a defence.
Note the use of “previous sanctity of email inboxes” because no company to date has had the in my opinion downright cheek to propose performing this level of detailed profiling of specific emails on such a scale for the aim of serving targeted commercial adverts.
2.4) I recall discussions some years ago with a large customer whose main competitor was then overseas, about an innovation whose impact could give them a significant commercial advantage over their rival.
There was no way at that time that I wanted any discussions to use email whether commercially encrypted or not because even at that time significant public organisations (governmental) in various countries round the world were reputed to have been abusing their access to and scanning of non public communications occurring across telephone networks for the commercial gain of various organisations for various purposes.
Google is a private profit making company which has now set itself on a route to try to maximise profit from scanning data contained in non public communications and letting others access and profit from this data.
At this stage this access is planned to be via targeted advertising. It seems clear that Google would like to monetise as much non public communication by email as it can get its hands on and it may succeed in building a massive databank of personal and commercial messages which were in many or most cases not intended to be public or to be snooped over for the commercial gain of a third party.
So what of perhaps another stage in Google’s development, sometime down the line when they have a massive databank of non public but personal and in many cases commercial communications including lots for which no consent was given by the content creating and sending party and on which perhaps non disclosure agreements pertain.
What about when they may decide at some future time to revise their terms and conditions of service to make it more advantageous for them to profit from this databank?
3. From the point of view of this private user:
3.1) I am reconciled, as much as I can be, that my own government will always want to have the ability to eavesdrop as much as it is technically able on my every move and every communication whenever it may wish to.
They have brought legislation into effect to that aim in the name of national security.
My “every thought” is out of their reach at this stage so George Orwell was wrong so far about that issue in his fictional predictions, but the fact that my own government feel the need to reserve the right to eavesdrop “as much as is technically feasible on everyone all the time” is disquieting enough, if only to my tax bill to pay for the costs of watching over my every recordable action.
The fact that an overseas commercial organisation, which is only subject to the law of my country when and how it operates in this country, wants itself to start significantly further down this road with or without my agreement simply leaves an extremely bad taste in my mouth.
4. In general, where may Google be heading to with its inquisitiveness?
It has indexed much publicly visible information from newsgroup postings, from web pages, online database contents, news stories, forum posts, much of this it republishes on its own site in its caches of crawled data which it may need for its search engine to function but it did not need to make public.
The act of making its copies of other peoples copyright data available for browsing on its own servers is arguably against the better interests of the copyright owners own online interests and certainly without their specific positive consent.
The opinion of an employee of Google (GoogleGuy) about someone who was apparently copying his messages from this forum and displaying them on his own web site,
Post 115 of this thread [webmasterworld.com...]
was that this practice was “just rude”
GoogleGuy you continued to write further on it:
“In the mean time, taking all my posts without asking me or asking Brett, then posting them with your own spin on it (which can be way off the mark)--it's just rude. And selling those text links for "search engine marketing" when you're copying my posts, well, that's just classy. So not that you've ever asked, but I'd like you to stop copying my posts. “
This is not an attack on you GoogleGuy but your observations there are so hypocritical as to be simply amusing.
Think about the Google cache, think about loads of our email being perhaps redirected to Gmail accounts that your company plans to access and scan in great detail for profit and now think how your post makes it seem that you must be more equal than the rest of us.
How is that? specifically:
What this guy apparently is doing is nothing more than the very essence of Google itself.
Gather together material produced by others with or without their permission, (as the only way anyone can avoid this is to positively deny permission, Google has never asked permission to visit and copy any web pages, the best it has come up with is a please deny us if you don’t want us which is undoubtedly the lazy way expected to gain the greatest access) anyhow so gather other peoples content oh (put your spin on it) well Google summarise it themselves and sort it into an order of relevance in their opinion to whatever term is presented.
Then present text adverts next to this summary of copies of other peoples content sorted in Google’s interpretation of relevance or even importance.
I have no personal argument with GoogleGuy or Google but this forum is about news and discussion of these topics and the hypocrisy in that post would be merely a funny moment if it were not made in the middle of a serious debate about the implications of a service with significant implications for communication.
If anyone cannot see the hypocrisy I am pointing to above they need to think a little harder.
Anyhow where are Google going? Quite legitimately Google collects data from our search histories of their service, from people who installed their toolbar they collect browsing histories when page rank display is on these are identified to us where possible using cookies.
Google wants with Gmail to capitalise on the very contents of our non-public person-to-person communications however it seems that it can get its hands on them and yet again “without the content creators positive consent” – and where its next steps are with the mass of data it is gathering from each and every one of us and our organisations is open to widespread debate and in many cases wild conspiracy theories which may confuse the issues.
Should Google start to resell this Gmail service, once established, to ISPs around the world like an Adsense program where it shares revenues with them in exchange for access to scan streams of non public email not already directed to a Gmail recipient (the contents of which it will be able to access without the written consent of the creators or the content to use perhaps to profile or perhaps target more commercial advertising?) where or how invasive does Google expect to be before a backlash starts to happen.
Well there is some backlash already and in my humble opinion rightly so.
I think Gmail is a badly thought through idea, because of the specifics of machine email scanning without the consent of the content creator and message sender, for profit, and the open door the proposed service should give our competitors to identify and single out our customers whom we may have worked hard to win and harder to protect.
For the purposes of national security by our governments we have little choice about such scanning activity.
Because it is quite technically feasible given the indexing capabilities Google have achieved does not mean it is a good or right thing to bring in on a large scale.
Remove the email scanning, disable my competitor’s abilities to specifically target my customers, disable their abilities to trigger ads based on my trademarks in the US and Canada without my knowledge and serve more generalised adverts as Yahoo mail does and it soon appears a much less problematic service to people like me.
Many more things will become technically feasible in the coming years. Which of them we permit organisations and governments to do to us or for us will depend on how much we are paying attention to the fine print and whether we care about how our world develops.