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April 2012

Few Oldies relish the thought of submitting to a lot of rules that they know nothing about. However, when you last did a search on Google (or any search engine), that’s exactly what happened; you were, tacitly or otherwise, accepting that you were subject to their Terms of Service. 

It’s the small print that is tucked away in their websites, it sets out the basis on which they allow you to use their services, and how you must behave.  You can read Google’s UK Terms by clicking here 

There’s been a bit of a fuss recently, because Google imposed a new set of these rules on 1st March, which sought to unify their Terms of Service across all the things that they do - search, maps, calendar, YouTube, Gmail and many more.  That sounds fairly sensible to me, but it is an interesting pointer to the way these big internet companies are going, because the main change in the Google terms is that they have now given themselves permission to track your activities right across all their services.

You can see their self-justifying video here:

This is important to them because if you are the likes of Google, Twitter, Facebook, Bing and the rest, the key to making a huge fortune on the internet is knowing as much as possible about the person who is using your service.  That way you can deliver very precisely targeted adverts to their desktop, adverts that are promoting something that they are very likely to buy.  You can charge much more for that sort of advert.

You might be astonished to know just how personal the adverts you see are, or can be.  Suppose I had a website selling hats; to place an advert for my hats on, for example, the front page of the Daily Mail website for all their visitors to see is very, very expensive, because it one of the most looked at websites in the world.

However, through the magic of the internet, I am able to record the unique addresses of all the computers that visit my hat website, and I can ask the Daily Mail to show my advert only on computers that have previously visited my website.  This dramatically reduces the cost to me, and at the same time targets the adverts very precisely indeed, to people I know may already have an interest in my hats.  It also has the benefit of making my advert as prominent (to those that see it) as those of the big boys.

This is about as close to finding the Holy Grail as the advertising industry has ever managed, and it’s fast sucking money away from traditional advertising.

Google apply the same techniques, and by being able to track everything we do on their many sites they can build up a very precise, and ever-improving, picture of our likes, dislikes and inclinations. Advertisers can then ask Google to show their adverts only to, perhaps, people over 50 who have recently looked up train times online, or anyone who has looked at a map of Manchester, or people who have received emails mentioning Noel Coward.  And so on.

It is an astonishing revolution in the way companies reach their customers, and jolly clever, but should we Oldies care?  There are privacy concerns, but I think, on the whole, it’s the price we pay for having free access to the search engines.  It might be interesting to see how popular a paid-for version of Google would be, if they promised to collect no data; my guess is that it would fail.

There is a balance to be struck between convenience and invasion of privacy, and my view is that Google’s new Terms of Service have not skewed the equation much more in Google’s favour; it’s certainly easier now to understand the deal we have with them. 

The only real danger is that you might be insulted by the products they determine suit you; yesterday an advert for a very local nursing home appeared on my computer.  I was outraged. 

I've put some links to more information here.