How To Get The Most Out Of Google's Share-Happy World

If Google's going to keep tying all their services together, you may as well know how that will work, and how you can benefit from it.

In just over a month, Google will change its privacy policies for all its products. Actually, Google is combining 70 different policies into a single set of rules, defining how the company treats all the personal information you provide. It’s more of a refinement than a brash new move, but it has opened many people’s eyes to what Google can really do with their data--some handy stuff, really, if you’re cool with what Google already does.

At its best, Google’s newly one-bucket data system will make its infant social network, Google+, more useful and relevant, both for surfacing things you care above the chatter, and, perhaps, getting your profile and posts in front of those who might care. The advertising you see could be more relevant to your tastes, which, aside from one-click lapses in willpower, is a nice enough thing. Android phones could potentially tell you that, based on your Calendar, road traffic, and local weather, you’re cutting it close for your scheduled flight. And if Google itself gets better at search from human input, it’s a net win for most of us.

More to the point, Google could already do this, just with slightly less oil in its gears. The search and web advertising giant can already guess a lot about you, based on what you’ve searched for on the web. Head over to the Ad Preferences Manager and see for yourself. Those demographic guesses (25-34, male) and interest categories (“Computers & Electronics,” “Food & Drink - Restaurants”) come from the ubiquitous Google-hosted ads you see on sites that telegraph some of your personality (including this one). But if you change computers, wipe out the cookies in your computer, or choose to opt out of customized ads, you’re back to square one.

When Google adopts a new universal privacy policy on March 1, you’ll still have control over targeted web ads, but you can’t opt out of the inter-service data sharing. So when when you search for “refurbished iPads,” then “Apple refurbished iPad,” then “used iPad warranty,” don’t be surprised to one day see iPad videos at YouTube, Maps links to nearby Apple resellers, and Google News results about iPad sell-backs.

In all its posts and video explainers and public responses, Google emphasizes that the move to clarify a single collection point is meant to improve the experience in Google products, to give users more of what they want without having to ask for it. But most everyone watching closely notes that it also opens Google up to a wider stream of advertising cash. “What it comes down to, bottom line, is ad revenue,” said Ashley L. Pohdradsky, assistant professor of computing and security technology at Drexel University and a digital forensics expert. "(Google) has removed many of the legal hoops they have to jump through to share personal information between programs … like the kind (of information) consumers give to Facebook on a daily basis. That data is gold, because you can target ads more accurately."

Then again, you, too, benefit from reaching the right people more effectively. If you write, design, or contribute to things that appear on the web, you can claim authorship, via a linked Google profile. Google Profiles are pretty good at showing off your skills, achievements, and curated interests, as opposed to, say, your last dozen or so Twitter updates, or your public-facing Facebook profile. The website you own and control is still relevant, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to link up that page with your Google+ Page or Profile.

Google is a massively profitable corporation, not a nonprofit web standards group. But there’s not much chance it’s going to step back from a smoothed-out data usage system, so it doesn’t hurt to know how it can help you. You might see 66% of users stating that they’ll quit using Google, in a poll linked to a surprisingly alarmist Washington Post story about the policy change. Yet Facebook has, time and again, made changes to its own privacy policies, seen thunderous outcry, possibly slacken up a notch or two--but how much further has Facebook come in getting its users to share, and how many people do you know have really quit Mr. Zuckerberg’s network?

If you’ve truly grown tired of giving Google too much information, both Google and the pundits will tell you that the true opt-out is to use other services. Can you really do so without turning your principles into an eccentric, quixotic part-time job? Yes, actually--and we’ll cover that in tomorrow's Work Smart post.

Next up: How To Claw Back Some Privacy Under Google's New Policy

[Image: Flickr user Yang and Yun]

Follow @KevinPurdy on Twitter, and follow @FastCompany, too.

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