Google explains (sort of) how it's watching you but now indexes some Facebook comments

Microsoft Bing also offers opt-outs of personalized search, and seems headed in the same direction.

Google on Wednesday told its search engine and Gmail users that it would be adding a new service that explains why they are seeing particular ads. It also reiterated the fact that users can opt out of personalized ads altogether. Then again, the Google bot will now be indexing comments on websites when users sign in with their Facebook accounts and or when using tools like Disqus and Intense Debate. (Network World uses Disqus.)

This does not mean that Google will be indexing Facebook itself. But if you sign into a website using your Facebook account and leave a comment, those comments become searchable on Google and by your Facebook name. Ditto for comment platforms. For instance, you can sign into Disqus using your Facebook account. Websites that use these systems are happy about this, as it means that a good chunk of their sites that were not previously indexed will be, so an active community of readers can help increase their page ranks. Google has been less than forthcoming about letting the world know. The news was first published by Digital Inspiration. The Google team has not yet formally announced it although it was sort-of confirmed by Google when Matt Cutts, the head of the company's webspam team send out this tweet, "Googlebot keeps getting smarter. Now has the ability to execute AJAX/JS to index some dynamic comments."

Google did explain that its new ad transparency service, coming "soon" will give you more insight as to why you've been presented with particular ads while using search and Gmail. While its obvious -- and A-OK -- that Google uses your search term to present relevant ads, it takes a fair bit of detective work to discover what other sources of information the company uses to match you with ads.

"By considering the language you’re using, your geographic location and various other indications, we’re able to show you the best ads possible. We’ve been showing ads in this way for years as a way to help you quickly find what you're looking for," writes Susan Wojcicki, SVP, Advertising on the Official Google Blog.

As to those various other indicators: Google reads your Gmail. Google will correlate your non-Google social media posts, like from Twitter to your Google account unless you specifically tell it not to. Its likely that it will use those newly indexed comments attached to your Facebook account, too. Google tracks all the information from other Google services you use including the GPS on your Android phone, according to its privacy policy.

You can opt out via the Ads Preference Manager, or you can go to the a more granular view and opt out of individual categories Google has identified with you. This blocks a cookie on your browser. Its not clear if this opt out will stop Google from collecting information on you in other ways. -- such as correlating your Facebook name with the sites where you post comments. But you'll stop seeing ads.

Dean Hachamovitch
Meanwhile, Microsoft today published a big profile of one of the guys building similar features into Bing. In it, the company said, "Social search adds a layer to traditional search by using data from users’ social networks to enhance the Bing experience." Bing results will show you Facebook likes from your friends, for instance. (Google also has Social search, which you can find by clicking on "More search tools" and then "Social").

Remember how Microsoft's Dean Hachamovitch was marching around CES with a T-shirt that said "Private"? It was an effort to brand Microsoft as the protectors of privacy. (See Microsoft to Use Privacy in Battle with Google) So I asked Microsoft if they would be offering a similar service of ad transparency and if they let users opt out of personalized data collection too.

This is what a spokesperson told me. "We don’t comment on competitor announcements. Our approach to privacy is based on responsibility, transparency, and choice. We select ads based on information that does not directly or personally identify individual consumers. We also provide consumers with the choice to opt-out of receiving targeted advertisements from Microsoft should they so choose."

The opt-out was not an option listed in my Bing preferences page. Took me a little hunting to find it, but Microsoft has a page called Personalized Advertising from Microsoft and from there you can get a bit of sense of what Bing has correlated to you and opt-out.

Then again, maybe I'll just use search engine Duck Duck Go, which does not collect any personal information.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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