Google is alerting hundreds of millions of users of its products that it's changing the way it treats users' data, combining even more information it knows about them from all of its products, from Gmail to YouTube.
The Internet search giant is putting a notice on its home page and sending emails to users starting Tuesday. Google says the changes will give users a better, more consistent experience on Google products and will help advertisers better reach users who are interested in their products and services.
Google says it's been combining information it gleans about users logged into Google for years to tailor search results and ads to their interests. Now it will be able to do that even more broadly. For example, if you search for skateboard tricks on Google and then hop over to YouTube, the video sharing site will recommend offerings from skateboard pro Tony Hawk.
Google says users can still control their information through the privacy dashboard and the Ads Preferences Manager.
Google says it's helping users. But it’s also clearly helping itself, said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com.
"This may cause more critics to complain that there is no escaping the clutches of Google," Sullivan said.
And it could throw more fuel on the already heated controversy over Google's recently launched Google Search plus Your World feature which combined information from Google+ into search results.
Under the leadership of Chief Executive Larry Page, Google has moved more aggressively to use its position as the dominant Internet company to promote its Google+ social network.
It's looking to slow the momentum of Facebook and to use personal data from Google+ and other Google products to improve search, maps and ads.
It’s a battle of the Web superpowers. Facebook, which is on the verge of an initial public offering that could raise $10 billion and value the Menlo Park, Calif., company at $100 billion, aims to own everyone’s online identity and already has a rich hoard of information about its users and deep insights into their connections and interests.
To counter Facebook's growing influence, Google is pouring massive resources into reengineering its approach to the Web and make it more social.
Like other major Internet players, it’s walking a fine line between respecting the privacy of users and mining as much information about them as possible.
Google has stumbled when it comes to privacy. Last year it reached a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that subjects the company to 20 years of privacy audits. It also has drawn heavy regulatory scrutiny in Europe.
Google recently launched a privacy campaign to educate consumers about how it uses their information and how to protect themselves on the Web.
"Sounds like Google's overall practices won't be that different; it's more that Google is owning up to how it thinks and what it does," said Calo, who’s with Stanford Law School's Center for Internet & Society, which gets some funding from Google.
But he’s less sure if Google isn’t risking turning off some users with what he calls the "creepiness" factor.
For example, Google says someday it may be able to alert you based on your location, your calendar and local traffic conditions when you are going to be late for a meeting. According to Google: "Google users still have to do too much heavy lifting, and we want to do a better job of helping them."
Do users want Google to do that? It depends, Calo said.
"It's different if I am going to a business meeting or to a strip club,” he said.
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-- Jessica Guynn
Photo: A sign for Google is displayed behind the Google android robot, at the National Retail Federation, in New York on Jan. 17, 2012. Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP Photo