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Category: Search

Google plans to merge more user data across its products

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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.

The changes to Google's privacy policy and terms of service take effect March 1. They remove legal hurdles Google had faced in combining information from certain properties such as YouTube or search history.

Google said the new privacy policy responds to demands from regulators around the globe that users have a simpler, more concise way to understand what Google does with their information. Right now users have to navigate a complex web of privacy policies and terms of service for different Google products.

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.

Privacy advocate Ryan Calo, who was given a sneak peek at Google's new privacy policy, says it's unlikely users will read it. Privacy policies are required by law, but few people pay attention to them, even when they are like Google's latest one: short, concise and written in plain English, he said.

"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

'Don't Be Evil' tool alters new Google search results

FocusOnTheUser.org

When Google changed the rankings of its search results this month, items from its Google+ social network -- such as photos, videos, comments and links -- got a boost at the expense of other social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter wasn't happy about the changes, which Google called Search Plus Your World, and made its dissatisfaction known. Privacy groups called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the changes.

But merely complaining about the new search results wasn't enough for a few engineers from Facebook, Twitter and Myspace. On Monday, the backlash against Search Plus Your World hit another level with the release of their Don't Be Evil bookmarklet, available on the new website Focus on the User.

The bookmarklet, which is a browser plug-in of code that alters Google search results to make them more like they were before Search Plus Your World, was built over the weekend by a small team that included Facebook's director of product, Blake Ross, and Facebook software engineers Tom Occhino and Marshall Roch.

The bookmarklet's Don't Be Evil name is a nod to Google's company mantra.

A statement posted on Focus on the User says:

When you search for "cooking" today, Google decides that renowned chef Jamie Oliver is a relevant social result. That makes sense," reads a statement on Focus on the User. "But rather than linking to Jamie's Twitter profile, which is updated daily, Google links to his Google+ profile, which was last updated nearly two months ago. Is Google's relevance algorithm simply misguided?

No. If you search Google for Jamie Oliver directly, his Twitter profile is the first social result that appears. His abandoned Google+ profile doesn't even appear on the first page of results. When Google's engineers are allowed to focus purely on relevancy, they get it right.

So that's what our "bookmarklet" does. It looks at the three places where Google only shows Google+ results and then automatically googles Google to see if Google finds a result more relevant than Google+.

Google officials were unavailable for comment on the bookmarklet Monday afternoon.

Facebook's Ross, who is also one of the three co-founders of Mozilla's Firefox Web browser and was spreading the word about the bookmarklet on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, has had a run-in with Google+ before: In August, Ross' Google+ profile page was temporarily suspended. Google never commented on why that happened, but Ross has said it was because Google didn't think the page really belonged to him.

Along with the launch of the bookmarklet and the Focus on the User site, a video (which can be seen below) explaining how the bookmarklet works, narrated by Ross, was posted to YouTube.

The bookmarklet isn't an official product of Facebook, Twitter or Myspace, but nobody seems to be shying away from the connection to those companies.

Where will this beef go from here? That's up to the involved engineers and anyone else around the Web who wants to dig in and write some code.

"This proof of concept was built by some engineers at Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, in consultation with several other social networking companies," Focus on the User says. "We are open-sourcing the code so that anyone may use it or make it even better."

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Image: A screen shot of FocusOnTheUser.org.

Privacy watchdog urges investigation of Google search feature

Google office in Brussels

An influential Washington privacy group is urging government regulators to probe a new search feature from Google, saying it invades the privacy of users and shuts out competitors.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed  a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday over the new feature called Search plus Your World. The feature started getting attention this week as it rolled out to users who began to see personal photos and updates from the Google+ social network show up in their search results.

Twitter, a competitor to Google+, complained that its content was being pushed down in search rankings.

EPIC’s executive director, Marc Rotenberg, says Google is using its dominance in Internet search to promote its own products at the expense of its rivals. He also said the new feature violates the privacy settlement that Google reached last year with the FTC over its defunct social network Buzz.

"We believe this is something that the FTC needs to look at," Rotenberg told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the FTC declined to comment.

Google says it’s trying to make its search engine more useful by highlighting personal information from its social network. Google rolled out Google+ six months ago as Facebook and Twitter increased in popularity.

"For years we’ve been working on social search features to help you find the most relevant information from your social connections no matter what site it's on," a Google spokesman said. "Search plus Your World doesn't change who has access to content, it simply helps people rediscover information they already have access to. We've taken special care with our new features to provide robust security protections, transparency and control for our users."

The new feature mostly affects the up to 1 in 4 people who are logged in to Google or Google+ while searching the Web. Those users now have the option of seeing search results that are customized to their interests and connections. If they search for a vacation spot such as Mexico or Hawaii, they may see photos from previous trips or posts from friends.

Google has been working a long time to create a search engine that delivers results tailored to its users. It's also trying to catch up to social networking giant Facebook, which, with more than 800 million users, knows its users far better than Google does.

Google was already facing broad scrutiny of its search and advertising businesses in Washington and Brussels. Critics allege that Google exploits its dominant position in search to promote its own services.

The Federal Trade Commission, attorneys general in six states and the European Commission are looking into complaints. Google handles about two-thirds of Web searches in the U.S. and more than 80% in much of Europe.

Google also faces rising scrutiny on privacy matters. In April, it agreed to submit to 20 years of privacy audits as part of the privacy settlement with the FTC.

In an interview this week, Google Fellow Amit Singhal said Google has taken significant steps to make its new feature private and secure. He also said Google was open to including information from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

"However," he said, "it has to be done in a way that the user experience doesn't deteriorate over time and that users are in control over what they see from whom and not some third party."

But Google is facing uncomfortable questions about whether it's looking out for its users or itself, said Danny Sullivan, editor of the website Search Engine Land, who has been tracking Google since the 1990s.

Facebook, which generated billions of dollars in revenue last year and is weeks away from filing plans for a $100-billion initial public offering, poses the biggest threat to Google's online advertising business.

Facebook formed an alliance with Microsoft's Bing, a rival to Google, which has been showing information mined from Facebook in its search engine’s results since May.

Facebook declined to comment.

Washington antitrust lawyer David Balto said Google has little to worry about because EPIC does not have a case.

"You would need a super-powered microscope to be able to find any significant competition or privacy concerns from Google's conduct," Balto said.

Users are split on whether they want their search engine to deliver results customized to them.

Dave Mora, 31, an analyst for a Los Angeles entertainment company, said he now gets more relevant search results and consequently is using more Google services.

"Your experience is even that much richer," he said. "How many times have you asked a friend that knows about computers a tech question, you car enthusiasts friend a car question, or even that doctor friend a medical question? It is the same idea, just presented differently.”

But Melissa Cleaver, a 35-year-old blogger from Houston, said that she would turn off the feature and that she's getting increasingly wary of how powerful Google has become on the Web.

"It just seems to me that Google is pulling out all the stops to force you to use Google+," said Cleaver, who has 40% of her investment portfolio in Google stock. "I don't think Facebook or Twitter have anything to worry about. Just another reason that Mark Zuckerberg can sleep soundly tonight."

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Google likely to face FTC complaint over 'Search Plus Your World'

New Google feature adds a personal touch to search results

Twitter blasts prominence of Google+ content in search results 

-- Jessica Guynn

 Photo: Google office in Brussels. Credit: Virginia Mayo / Associated Press

Google, Facebook, YouTube are most visited websites in 2011

plus.google.com

Google, Facebook and YouTube racked up the most unique visitors among U.S. websites in 2011, according to new data from the research group Nielsen.

Not necessarily the most surprising news is it? What may be a bit more interesting is that, despite its rapid growth, Google+ was on average visited by fewer users than Myspace this year, according to Nielsen. Google+ was released in beta in July and opened to the public in September.

The Nielsen data also doesn't cover the entire year, only January to October.

According to Nielsen, the top 10 U.S. social networks and blogs, by page views, in 2011 were:

1. Facebook -- 137.6 million average page views per month

2. Blogger -- 45.5 million average page views per month

3. Twitter.com -- 23.6 million average page views per month

4. WordPress.com -- 20.4 million average page views per month

5. Myspace.com -- 17.9 million average page views per month

6. LinkedIn -- 17 million average page views per month

7. Tumblr -- 10.9 million average page views per month

8. Google+ -- 8.2 million average page views per month

9. Yahoo! Pulse -- 8 million average page views per month

10. Six Apart/TypePad -- 7 million average page views per month

Nielsen also reported that the 10 most visited overall U.S. Web brands in 2011 were:

1. Google -- 153.4 million average page views per month

2. Facebook -- 137.6 million average page views per month

3. Yahoo! -- 130.1 million average page views per month

4. MSN/WindowsLive/Bing -- 115.9 million average page views per month

5. YouTube -- 106.7 million average page views per month

6. Microsoft -- 83.8 million average page views per month

7. AOL Media Network -- 74.6 million average page views per month

8. Wikipedia -- 62 million average page views per month

9. Apple -- 61.6 million average page views per month

10. Ask Search Network -- 60.5 million average page views per month

 And finally, the top 10 U.S. Web brands for video, according to Nielsen's data:

1. YouTube -- 111.1 million average page views per month

2. Vevo -- 34.6 million average page views per month

3. Facebook -- 29.8 million average page views per month

4. Yahoo! -- 25.3 million average page views per month

5. MSN/WindowsLive/Bing -- 16.6 million average page views per month

6. AOL Media Network -- 13.3 million average page views per month

7. Hulu -- 13.1 million average page views per month

8. The CollegeHumor Network -- 12.5 million average page views per month

9. CNN Digital Network -- 8.3 million average page views per month

10. Netflix -- 7.4 million average page views per month

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Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Image: A screen shot of plus.google.com. Credit: Google

'Facebook' tops list of most-searched-for terms of 2011

  Facebook

"Facebook" was the term most frequently searched for by American Internet users in 2011, according to a report from Experian Hitwise, part of the Experian Marketing Group.

In fact, "facebook" dominated Experian's top ten list, showing up in four different iterations: "Facebook login" was the third most searched for term this year. "Facebook.com" was fifth, and "www.facebook.com" came in eighth.

The full list looks like this:

1. facebook

2. youtube

3. facebook login

4. craigslist

5. facebook.com

6. yahoo

7. ebay

8. www.facebook.com

9. mapquest

10. yahoo.com

This is the third year in a row that "facebook"  has topped the list. Searches for that one-word term were up 46% this year from 2010. Multiple-term searches including  "facebook" were up 24% from last year.

"Navigational searches dominated the top search results as users typed in terms versus typing in the URL in the browser bar," Simon Bradstock, a general manager of Experian Hitwise, said in a statement. 

Single-word searches rose 11% users came to expect that their search engine would fill in the rest of the terms for them.

The most frequently searched-for public figures, Experian, said were Justin Bieber at No. 1 and Casey Anthony at No. 2. (Charlie Sheen was No. 6.)

In the movies category, "Star Wars" -- surprisingly -- came in at No. 1, followed by "Transformers 3" and the "Breaking Dawn" installment of the "Twilight" series.

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Photo: Facebook's logo, displayed at the company's office in New York. Credit: Scott Eells / Bloomberg

 

Google-Firefox search deal reportedly worth $900 million

Mozilla's home page

Google is reportedly paying Mozilla about $900 million over the next three years to remain the default search engine in the Firefox Web browser.

The two parties this week renewed their longstanding partnership to keep Google as the default search engine, rather than moving to alternative such as Yahoo or Microsoft's Bing. When the agreement was announced, neither disclosed financial terms.

On Thursday, the website AllThingsD reported that the deal would call for Google to pay the nonprofit Mozilla about $300 million a year for the next three years.

"We're pleased to announce that we have negotiated a significant and mutually beneficial revenue agreement with Google," Mozilla said in a blog post Tuesday. "This new agreement extends our long-term search relationship with Google for at least three additional years."

Mozilla said the financial details weren't disclosed because the deal is "subject to traditional confidentiality requirements."

If the AllThingsD report is true, the new deal would be a huge revenue increase: Mozilla's total revenue last year was just $123 million, according to the website ZDNet.

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Image: A screen shot of Mozilla.org in the Firefox Web browser. Credit: Mozilla

Sens. Herb Kohl and Mike Lee call for Google antitrust probe

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt testifies at Senate hearing
The chairman and top Republican on the Senate antitrust subcommittee have asked regulators to investigate Google Inc.'s search practices, saying they were concerned the company was biasing results to favor its own products.

The senators -- panel Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) -- sent a letter Monday to the Federal Trade Commission, which already is conducting a broad antitrust investigation into Google's business practices, including search and advertising.

Kohl and Lee questioned Google Chairman Eric Schmidt at a contentious hearing in September. Schmidt's answers, along with testimony from two Google competitors, raised questions that should be explored by regulators, the senators said in their letter to FTC Chairman Jonathan Leibowitz.

"We believe these allegations regarding Google's search engine practices raise important competition issues," wrote Kohl and Lee, whose committee has been conducting its own review of Google. "We are committed to ensuring that consumers benefit from robust competition in online search and that the Internet remains the source of much free-market innovation."

At the hearing, senators heard complaints from the chief executives of local review site Yelp and online product comparison site Nextag that Google abuses its search engine dominance at the expense of smaller competitors.

Asked by Lee during the hearing whether Google "cooked" its search results on three product-comparison websites to favor Google Shopping results, Schmidt responded, "Senator … I can assure you we have not cooked anything."

Schmidt strongly denied the accusations. But Kohl and Lee said Monday that there were enough questions to warrant an FTC review.

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Photo: Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt takes the oath at a Senate antitrust subcommittee hearing in September. Credit: Associated Press.

BT sues Google, alleges widespread patent infringement

Google headquarters

British Telecommunications, better known as BT, has accused Google of infringing six of its patents in a lawsuit filed in the U.S.

The company -- which has customers in more than 170 countries and offers land-line and mobile phone service as well as Internet TV and IT services -- alleges in its suit that a number of Google products violate its patents, including Google's search engine, the Android mobile operating system and Android Market app store, Gmail, Google+, Google Books, Docs, Maps, Music, Places, Offers and advertising operations.

Google plans to fight the suit, saying in an emailed statement: "We believe these claims are groundless and we will vigorously defend ourselves against them."

The suit, which was first reported by the website Foss Patents and filed in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Del., didn't specify what sort of damages BT is looking for, but did ask for an injunction against the products it accuses of infringing its patents.

The six patents BT accuses Google of violating cover broad technologies, such as products that tailor what information they present based on the location a user is in, as well as how user location and profile information is stored and accessed.

The BT suit is one of many Google is grappling with. The tech giant is dealing with a patent battle against Oracle, a suit from EBay/PayPal and suits from Apple and Microsoft directed at Google's hardware partners.

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Photo: A Google sign outside the tech giant's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Credit: Clay McLachlan / Reuters

Samsung's 40-inch SUR40 for Microsoft Surface tablet on pre-order

Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft Surface

Samsung's SUR40 for Microsoft Surface: Table, tablet, or maybe both?

Well, it surely isn't very mobile, but it is on pre-order in 23 countries, including the U.S.

The 40-inch touchscreen device, as the name implies, runs Microsoft's Surface software, which is most often found in Surface tables inside Microsoft Stores. The New York Times has done some experimenting with an older version of Microsoft's Surface technology too.

Microsoft and Samsung also showed off the SUR40, which has a 4-inch-thick display, at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and now you can buy one too -- if you've got the cash.

So, how much will it cost and when will it ship?

Samsung and Microsoft officials weren't available to answer those questions Thursday morning, but the SUR40 will sell for about $7,600 according to the website SlashGear, or about $8,400 according to TechCrunch. Mashable reports that the SUR40 could sell for between $10,000 and $15,000.

We'll let you know when we hear from Samsung or Microsoft to clarify the pricing details, but obviously the SUR40 isn't meant to compete with Apple's iPad on price or size.

[Updated 11:59 a.m.: Jason Redmond, a Samsung spokesman, clarified the pricing and shipping details for the Technology blog in an email, saying:

Pricing is $8,400 USD for just the display unit and $9,049 with the legs as shown in the photo. It is sold without the legs for customers who are building a tabletop or display furniture around the SUR40. We will start shipping to customers in early January, not long after CES.]

The target here is educational institutions and businesses such as retail, healthcare, hospitality and even the financial industry and "other commercial business environments to help deliver interactive digital content, drive sales, showcase brands, and increase customer satisfaction and loyalty," said Somanna Palacanda, the director of Microsoft's Surface team, in a statement.

The SUR40, which can be laid horizontal and on legs (like a table) or mounted on walls and other upright surfaces, uses what the two tech giants call PixelSense, which "allows an LCD display to recognize fingers, hands, and objects placed on the screen, including more than 50 simultaneous touch points," according to a Microsoft statement. "With PixelSense, pixels in the display see what’s touching the screen and that information is immediately processed and interpreted."

And yes, the SUR40 does have an app for Microsoft's Bing search engine and a built-in Web browser.

Want to see the SUR40 in action? Take a look at the Microsoft-produced video below.

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Image: A screenshot, taken from a Microsoft video, of the Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft Surface touch screen table in use. Credit: Microsoft Corp.

Google unveils tweaks to its search formula

Google

Google peeled back the covers on its powerful search engine to give users an idea of how it ranks websites.

For the first time on Monday it published in-depth details about some of the changes to its search formula.

Google makes hundreds of changes to the algorithm every year. It usually does not publicize the changes to keep websites from gaming Google's search results. The changes that Google detailed Monday are less vulnerable to being gamed, according to Matt Cutts, who helps safeguard search quality at Google.

Google is opening up as the Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Google favors its own businesses in search results, a potential violation of antitrust law. Google dominates Internet search with nearly 70% of Web searches around the globe.

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-- Jessica Guynn

 Photo: A Google office in Brussels. Credit: Virginia Mayo / Associated Press 

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