Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Google now tracking potentially 10-25% of Australians on the internet

The other day I was checking the statistics for a page on my site. I’m able to see what people searched for in Google and thus why they came to my site. I find this to be useful information. But lately I’ve noticed for the keyword a value of “(not provided)” started to appear, and more recently, on some pages this had become a considerable portion of the traffic.

I decided to investigate. Initially I didn’t know what may be causing the keywords used from not being provided. A bit of research indicated That recently Google decided to stop passing on keywords for searches on their overseas sites and more recently that was implement in Australia.

Knowing how and why people get to your site is quite important information and can assist you to make better decisions and where to direct your efforts. But if Google hides this information in effect, all you really know is they came from Google but you don’t know why.

Now what started to concern me even more, if what I read is correct, is the keyword is not provided if people are logged onto a Google service. The concern here for me, is Google is now able to identify and log an individual’s activity on the internet without them being really aware and I’m inadvertently assisting Google by using their services.

For example, most people will accept that if they perform a search that Google knows about the search. What may not cross their mind is, if they are logged onto a Google service, the searches can be associated and tracked to them. From what I see people don’t even realise they’re logged on to a Google service when they’re searching because they don’t make the connection with Google’s internet search and Google’s other services. I’d even suggest many people forget they are logged on. For example, many people use Gmail. They log on and then don’t log off so that when they open the Gmail site there are their emails ready for them to read. People at work are using the internet all day for work and during the day flip over to check their email.

In addition people are using other services such as YouTube and again remain logged on. Google have a range of services including their Android mobile phones, all potentially logging the activities of an individual without them realising it.

Even when you’re not thinking you’re using a Google service you may be. When you visit a site with advertising is that advertising provided by Google (as it is in many cases), are you being tracked. I’d guess you are. When you view a YouTube video, a Picassa photo, a page that has Google’s services embedded such as their analytics, are you being tracked? I’ve done searches on Google early in the day to visit a site later in the day, and found Google has remember what I searched for at the start of the day and provided ads later in the day based on the search I entered.

I was at a customer’s the other day and signed them up for hosting. When they went to a site with Google advertising that wasn’t related to hosting, there was a hosting ad in the middle of the page. Both the customer and myself was quite shocked to see the obvious tracking occurring, but had I not been there the customer would not have realised, as most people won’t realise.

The page that I originally noticed this keyword “not provided” message has today received 3,407 unique visitors. Of those 91.73% came from Australia and 12.24% produced keyword “not provided”, which from what I gather means they were logged onto a Google service at the time. In other words, 382 Australians were being individually tracked, or over a year that would be 4,000-5,000 people. That’s just from my site. What about the millions of other Australian sites.

Most of us don’t yet understand what is being done with our data or how it can, or even is affecting us. I don’t even know. As an example however, a while ago I searched for travel insurance and the usual ads appeared at the top of the page promoting super discounts and special offers. I decided to check them out. Most were around $700 or more for what I wanted. I then went and got a quote from the company I’ve previously used (I researched a number of companies a while ago) and ended up with insurance for around $450.

If Google knows what you’re doing and interested in, advertisers can use that to their advantage and present you with what looks like good offers, but in fact you end up paying more. The power of tracking you gives away your bargaining position. You’ve told the company already what you are interested in and since they know they have an interested buyer, you’ve lost your negotiating position and can easily pay more than you should or could. When you look at an advertisement in a newspaper they don’t know who you are and generally have to offer a much better proposal to you to get your interest.

The concern I have is Google is gathering too much information on us individually and not just as an anonymous pool of user statistics. How that information is used we aren’t fully made aware of. I’ll leave that to people’s creative imagination to come up with how they think their data could be being used both for good, and perhaps to their own disadvantage.

As an example I read about a leading GPS company overseas that uploaded data from people using the GPS unit. The authorities purchased the data and used the data to determine where people would speed and then they were able to book more people who were speeding. The people using the GPS units ended up potentially creating the situation where the fine they received only occurred because of the information they had themselves provided. Their own information from a service they were paying for had been used against them.

Whilst I can’t change the world, a change I will now make across the JustLocal site is to remove the Google Search facility. JustLocal has been designed to make it very easy to find a business in the local area. You don’t need to search. You just need to go to the postcode page and then click on the logo for the business you are interested in. Trying to find a local business in Google is often close to impossible. You’re more likely to get a list of directories than the business itself. JustLocal solves this problem by providing single click access to a local business advertising on JustLocal. In addition we don’t track what people do.

If you’re concerned about being tracked on the internet there are a couple of things you can do.

1. Make sure you log off any online service you are using when you finish. Don’t leave it logged on in the background.
2. Think about using Bing and Yahoo search as well as Google. If you split your searches evenly Google only sees a third of what you are doing.
3. Make sure you don’t have any toolbars from installed in your browser that may be tracking your searches.
4. Think about varying your use of browsers. Keep in mind Chrome is produced by Google and Firefox receives over 80% of their income as a result of searches using Google.
5. Install all three search engines in Internet Explorer. On my Fun With Search page (www.justlocal.com.au/clients/search-fun/) I provide links which enable you to easily install Yahoo, Bind and Google as search engines in Internet Explorer. You can then easily vary which search engine you use.
6. If you have an Android mobile phone or tablet it is very difficult not to use a Gmail account. It is possible. For a while I used the tablet without having any Google account. Only when I need to download an app would I re-enter the account and then delete it again after. You can use an email account that isn’t a Gmail account for your email. You can also log on to web based services from a Smartphone rather than use the built-in apps.

Right now over 90% of Australians search using Google. Giving a single company, no matter which company it is, access to all your online activities I don’t believe is the best idea.

As JustLocal grows and I have the resources available, I hope to remove the Google services I’m currently using and further reduce the ability for Google to track JustLocal users. This blog entry for example uses Google’s blogger. Sorry. I do this for business reasons and will be able to change once JustLocal’s momentum reaches a certain point. I look forward to that day.

Kelvin Eldridge

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