Google World

by Eszter Hargittai on August 24, 2005

I am back from a five-stop two-week trip and am finally catching up on CT and various things Web. I missed the discussion John started a few days ago about Google. Instead of adding to that thread, I’ll add a whole post. To think of Google as just a company focusing on search is outdated, in my opinion. Google is becoming much more than that. Since the beginning they have been an expert at using network analysis to their advantage. With the various services they are rolling out, they can use that ability not only in the realm of search, but in the realm of building profiles of their users.

The title of this post does not refer to a new Google program. Rather, it’s what I suspect the company is aiming at overall. That is, they are introducing (whether through internal development or buyouts) new services constantly, many of which suggest that they have their eyes on doing much more than providing search. Today, they launched Google Talk so now they are in the instant messaging market. For Google Talk, you need a Google Account, which is the same as your GMail account if you already have one. If you don’t, you may consider getting one since now they offer over 2.5 gigabytes of storage. Of course, you may never need that amount of space for email (although I learned a long time ago never to say never when it comes to storage space) in which case you may just want to use it as a backup for files.

One of the great features about GMail is that it checks for new email regularly (several times a minute) so as long as you stay logged on, you can get regular email updates. Of course, as long as you stay logged on, Google can track all of your online activities connected to its services, which include searches run on its search engine. Not only do they have information about all of your emails, they also know what searches you run and what results you choose.

Being able to scan your email (as they do for the purposes of displaying Google Ads) doesn’t only give them information about what topics you discuss, they also know with whom. They can develop very nice maps of people’s networks. Now that they have launched Google Talk they will also know which of your email contacts are strong enough that you also tend to contact them through chat (assuming you are using Google Talk for IMing). They will have more data on which to draw for a network map of your connections. And since the use of Google Talk requires a Google Account from both users, they can construct network maps of those people as well. So your network map is not just about your direct connections.

Of course, Google is not the only player in town. This is a good thing since at some point all of this tracking can get potentially disconcerting from a privacy point of view. Yahoo!, MSN and AOL remain major players. Yahoo! has been rolling out new products constantly as well and they have been buying up all sorts of popular services (e.g. Flickr, which has already been merged with people’s Yahoo accounts). Many many people continue to use the various services of these other companies. In fact, during my trip in the past few weeks, I saw and heard numerous people use and refer to all sorts of non-Google products (e.g. the continued prevalence of Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, Mapquest, AIM, etc.). Of course, my observations are based on anecdotal evidence, but that helps at times just so you don’t think everyone else’s actions mirror your own.

Much of Google’s financial success is attributed to its ad program. However, this has started to encounter problems recently due to click fraud. You will also notice that Web site owners’ desperate attempts at getting people to click on Google ads is leading to some very opaque placement of ads. That is, it is not at all clear that you are clicking on an ad. One example is this site where the user may think that the links below the four pictures on the top of the page have something to do with the images, but that’s a wrong assumption. This may lead to more initial clicks, but long term users may get weary and although they may continue to click through to a list of results, they won’t take the extra step to click on anything on the list of results.

In the meantime, Yahoo’s ad program is gaining prominence. Not only have several big sites switched to it (e.g. CNN, The Washington Post), but they are now also targeting smaller content providers. Who is to say AOL Time Warner won’t come out with its own such service as well? And Microsoft has already announced that it will be moving into this space soon.

Given all these recent developments, it makes sense for Google to focus on more than just search. Or even if search remains its main source of revenue, it makes sense for it to develop super detailed profiles of its users. It helps advertisers to have as much information about the audience as possible and the profiles generated through the use of Google’s web of services will offer immense details about many of its users.

It would be very naive to think that new players can enter this market easily at this point. However, there are some old ones that remain viable alternatives. Of course, from the user’s perspective this is a very healthy thing. Whether MSN or Google, we wouldn’t want one company holding a monopoly on all of our online doings.

As for my part, I continue to use a variety of services from various companies partly so my profile at any one of them doesn’t become too detailed.



Jose Angel 08.24.05 at 10:01 am

But who knows what mergers are held in store by the future… all data will end up in the Final Judgment or Apocalypse of Total Communication.


jeremy freese 08.24.05 at 11:06 am

Wow, I didn’t know about Google Talk and just checked it out. I can see where they could be even more addictive for a gmail user than regular instant messaging (whose timesuck potential I’ve managed to avoid). I wonder if Google Heroin can be far behind.


paul 08.24.05 at 11:11 am

I tried to register for an account last month, but couldn’t figure out how to do that. I finally concluded that registration for new accounts was/is closed for the time being.

I googled gmail, and clicked on the first link (which now is

Here you can sign into gmail, or find out about all the wonderful features of gmail, but sign up for a new account? I don’t think so. If anyone can point me in the right direction,…


Eszter 08.24.05 at 11:22 am

Paul – Good point, sorry, I forgot that aspect of the service. You can only get a GMail account through an invitation from a current user. Of course, this is yet another way for Google to create network maps of its users. You can find people online who are offering invitations. Here’s one possibility.


soubzriquet 08.24.05 at 11:31 am

Eszter, Paul – The number of gmail `invites’ seems to have grown too, so it should be easy enough to find.

For that matter, I have about 50 available, so if Paul or anyone wants an invite just ask (and provide an email address).

Hmmm…. that could lead to a CT cluster in the graph.


Joseph 08.24.05 at 11:40 am

This post is somewhat misleading. It’s not as if people are sitting around at Google going, “Oh look, so-and-so is connected to so-and-so, and he’s interested in this-and-that and talking to her about this.” No humans ever see any of the information a Gmail user writes about (other than the person who uses Gmail and his/her recipient — or maybe, worst-case-scenario, if the program is hacked). Even the recording of what pages a signed-on Google Accounts user visits and what he searches for is all abstract, encrypted data that cannot be correlated with an individual.


neil 08.24.05 at 11:48 am

How much Google stock do you own, Ezster?


Eszter 08.24.05 at 12:05 pm

Neil – I don’t own any Google stocks. I even went on record and announced to the world on CNNfn last year that I wouldn’t be buying any and I haven’t since. (The comment is toward the end of the interview.) I don’t deal with individual stocks in general.


Andrew 08.24.05 at 1:14 pm

I think Google gets the odd benefit of a large amount of much more positive press than other companies do. I think Google is basically a mini-microsoft without that broad vision that microsoft has.
I remember 60 minutes made it seem like the Google was the greatest place to work and that cafeteria was top-notch. However when I interviewed there, the food and atmosphere seemed pretty comparable to other silicon-valley companies. Also, the offer they gave was really a lowoffer, about 60% of what other companies in the region were paying, and less even than what Microsoft offered in a much less expensive region (the Seattle area cost of living is much less than the Bay area). Also, Microsoft gives every employee an office with a door, which is noticably better than the Silicon Valley tiny-cube workplace.

Combine that with google stock options that are now essentially worthless (who thinks that stock is still going up?) and I don’t see them having the same luck in hiring talented engineers, and I also think since they lack a greater broad vision for technology. This aspect cannot be discounted, since one of the reasons microsoft has stayed in its position is through the hiring of talented engineers. So I’m not sure how well they’ll do in the long run.


paul 08.24.05 at 1:49 pm


Anyway to get in touch with you without posting my current email address?


John Quiggin 08.24.05 at 2:02 pm

Interestingly, a self-consciously novel negative story about Google in today’s NYT.


soubzriquet 08.24.05 at 2:32 pm


This name at gmail will reach me.


Eszter 08.24.05 at 2:43 pm

While we’re talking GMail, check out the nifty new feature “Send Mail As”. It’s under Settings>Accounts. (See it here.) It’s well done. You can only add another address to which you have access so it can’t be used for random impersonation of others. But it should help in combatting spam by being able to specify different outgoing/reply-to addresses depending on where you’re sending email.

If you don’t see this option then perhaps it hasn’t been rolled out to your account yet. When I first read about it yesterday I hadn’t been given the option yet.


Peter 08.24.05 at 3:54 pm

“Of course, Google is not the only player in town. This is a good thing since at some point all of this tracking can get potentially disconcerting from a privacy point of view.”

“At some point”? Merely “disconcerting”? Surely the fact that Google knows who you send emails to and from, what you discuss in them, and which web-sites you visit should set major alarm bells ringing. It may not worry you, Eszter, but I would be scared witless by such personal intrusion and potential for actual, invasive harm. Will Google be selling me my children next?


Maynard Handley 08.24.05 at 4:20 pm

“I think Google gets the odd benefit of a large amount of much more positive press than other companies do. I think Google is basically a mini-microsoft without that broad vision that microsoft has.”

“Combine that with google stock options that are now essentially worthless (who thinks that stock is still going up?) and I don’t see them having the same luck in hiring talented engineers, and I also think since they lack a greater broad vision for technology.”

Ah, the good old economist’s reductionist view that the only thing that motivates people is money.
The fact is that what motivates engineers (and the motive gets stronger as the engineer is better) is the chance to improve the world. Google has here such advantages as
* they have an existing base of smart engineers, and everyone in the valley knows that it’s nice to work with smart colleagues
* they have a management that are engineers, and that have (at least for now) an agenda that seems based on truly making the world a better place; to the extent that this is sustainable as a public company, they really do seem to believe that making a bigger pie is more important than putting in place legal and economic obstacles that give them a bigger slice of a smaller pie
* they *ship*. Every good engineer in the valley knows the heartbreak of spending three years working on a product you believe in, only to have management kill it, often for reasons you think are complete BS. While this may happen at Google, it doesn’t seem to have happened enough yet to make the place seem unhappy .

As for the actual economics: “Google stock options are essentially worthless…”. This assumes, firstly, that stock options are awarded at a strike price equal to the stock price on the day of employment. I don’t know if this is ever the case; it’s never been the case in the experience of myself (working at Apple for ten years), my brother (who works at Google), or any of my friends.
More subtly, it ignores the point that volatility *increases* the value of options. Most people don’t seem to get this point. Even if Google’s current fall is one-way to a more sustained lower valuation, it will remain a volatile stock. The options you were awarded on your day of hire may turn out to be worthless (although you probably have ten years or so for them to gain some value, assuming you stay there ten years), but there will be other options, especially if you are good and earn not just a perfunctory bonus but actually something pretty substantial as thanks for getting some cool new feature shipped.


John Quiggin 08.24.05 at 4:53 pm

Eszter, I think you have described Google’s evolution pretty accurately, and it disturbs me in a couple of ways.

First, the general model of an all-enveloping service has been tried many times before and failed just as many times, first with the private alternatives to the Internet, then with the AOL walled garden with a door to the Internet, then with various kinds of portal sites. I’ll try a longer post arguing why I don’t think this will work.

Second, the privacy concerns are huge in themselves but are just one instance of the general problem of inevitable conflict of interest raised by all this. Google was a smashing success as a search engine not just because it had a good algorithm but because it didn’t subvert the integrity of searches for ad placements, and when it did introduce ads was upfront about what it was doing, and non-intrusive This doesn’t seem to be the case any more.


Andrew 08.24.05 at 5:12 pm

Maynard ,

The fact is that what motivates engineers (and the motive gets stronger as the engineer is better) is the chance to improve the world.

That may be true for a small percentage, but the large portion of engineers want a well-paying and steady position, just like any other group of workers. I agree that having managers that are engineers is immensely helpful for morale, as is shipping products. However, these tend to be true of most software companies that work on “pure technology” products like Google, Microsoft, Sun, etc. (compared to companies that work on more commercial products like Amazon, eBay, etc.)

This assumes, firstly, that stock options are awarded at a strike price equal to the stock price on the day of employment.

This was true of the options that Google offered to me. The price would have been like $300+. Maybe in ten years that would be valuable… I don’t know your brother, but he will have lucked out if he got hired in the last year or so and had is options priced differently.


fyreflye 08.24.05 at 6:14 pm

If you’re using Firefox as your primary browser, and you’d prefer that Google not track your online activity, there are extensions available to block that function.


almostinfamous 08.25.05 at 12:03 am

i notice that while google doesnt make windows software, neither does yahoo really… or AOL. all their development efforts have gone into windows versions. it is the bane of being a mac user that you have to discover your own apps


asg 08.25.05 at 10:00 am

Google should be nationalized, so that all these privacy concerns can be properly handled by public servants, accountable to the voters, and the concern of monopoly answered by management for the public’s benefit.

Wow, I was able to type that with a straight face. Scary.


giles 08.25.05 at 10:12 am

There’s an alternative explanation for expanding Google’s range of services. The problem for a search business has always been that any of their users could up and leave the service immediately at pretty much no cost. The more services Google can build up that are integrated with one another – and all Google software integrates with at least one other Google function – the harder this becomes for users of those services. If I’m already running Google Desktop/Sidebar, I’m likely to use Google for search even if MSN is better.

This is exactly the same leverage that MS have been using to get people to use their software and services, but starting from the other end.


Tim 08.25.05 at 10:27 am

What we’re seeing is a manifestation of the ugly side of conflict. Not the practical ugly side (hiring away each others’ employees, that sort of thing) but the theoretical ugly side. As Clausewitz pointed out, conflict tends to total conflict: whether through human nature or social structures, it’s not enough to triumph in a limited way.


rollo 08.25.05 at 2:38 pm

“It may not worry you, Eszter, but I would be scared witless by such personal intrusion and potential for actual, invasive harm. Will Google be selling me my children next?”
What frightens you is the unignorable fact of the intrusive presence, not the intrusive presence itself.
It’s that you’re forced to acknowledge it, because it’s transparent.
It’s the difference between being followed by someone so skillfully that you have no idea they’re back there, and someone periodically letting you know they’re following you.
You can deny the first one, pretend it isn’t happening. And there’s an illusion of power inherent in the fact of them needing secrecy.
Microsoft doesn’t acknowledge its data-retrieval software, Google does.
My own relations with Google/Gmail/blogger etc. are along the lines of – the bloody feds have all my emails already, why should I care if a bunch of alpha-nerds have them, too?
I was a little stressed by the introduction of the flag-button
to blogger – a Google service that allows community policing/censoring feedback – not by the button but the lack of comforting detail initially provided to users with its introduction. Though that’s been mollified somewhat.
There was nothing in the immediate company p.r. about how to find out why you’ve been “flagged”, nothing in fact about how to find out even if. It looked and smelled like a sop to the armchair vigilantes the digital prostheses have empowered.
But they seem to have addressed that.
The centralization and legally mandatory attendance, and especially the narrowly-enforced bottlenecks of curricula choice in the public education system in the US, is far more actively invasive in terms of data collection – and astronomically more dangerous in terms of its potential for social control – than anything Google has access to, even with all our online moves transparent.


Eszter 08.25.05 at 3:57 pm

Thanks for all sorts of interesting comments. I have several reactions, let’s see which ones I can remember.

I agree with Giles that having more services on which people rely helps draw in and keep users with one service provider. That was sort of implicit in the points I was making, but I can see how I should have articulated it directly to make that clear.

I disagree with Joseph that I’m making too much of what’s being done with the data. Sure, I am not suggesting that there are individuals assigned to check out X person’s exact communication patterns and networks on a regular basis, but I do think it’s a concern that the data are available and so if for some reason the company – or perhaps another entity that through some sort of means gained access to the data – wanted to figure out specifics about a user they could. The two areas where this is of biggest concern is political and health information.

A few comments seem to suggest that I’m not taking the privacy concerns seriously. I am taking them very seriously, which is why I am very conscious about how I use various services (and why I stick to using several of them). Of course, a lot of people don’t realize what’s going on and so their actions may not be as careful.

I think Rollo makes a good point that other companies are likely creating similarly detailed profiles of their users, they are just much less up front about it. However, I do think that the way Google has rolled out some of its services suggests that they have more network information than some others might, which puts them in a better position to create network profiles of their users.

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