Can we stop saying Google sells your data now?5 min read

In the online world of data scandals and the fight for online privacy, Google has had a rough few years. Seemingly overnight the behemoth transitioned from a universal good to a hotly debated subject. “DeGoogling” your life has become a new topic on a lot of tech websites and there are entire subreddits dedicated to getting the features of Android without Google. One key component that seems to be at the core of this movement is the idea that Google sells your private information.

Read just about any comment section dealing with privacy and you’ll see a least a handful of people who point out the tired old trope of “If it’s then you’re the product.” While somewhat true this concept has lead people to believe that massive companies like Google are selling your data. The thing is the people who say that are wrong. Let me explain why.

To be clear about one thing: Google, unlike Apple, is very upfront about how they use your data to make money. The website is very clear on how Google uses the data it collects about you, but still, I’ll explain it here.

Google collects a metric ton information about you; everything from your browsing habits, your google searching, how you use your phones, what apps you use, location data, etc. This data can be used to learn patterns about you, such as but not limited to; when you wake up and sleep, what your interests are, and where you’ve been. So if Google doesn’t actually sell your data what do they do with it?

The website from Google is pretty clear, but let me put it in a personal example;

Let’s say I’m a marketing team working at a major car manufacturer. My company created a new minivan that we want to sell. In the old days, I would create an add for that minivan and pay for some ad time slots on TV. I’d probably try to get this minivan commercial during daytime TV, and maybe during a soap opera. Why those times you might ask? Because that’s probably when stay at home moms are going to be watching TV and who is more likely to buy a minivan? A stay at home mom. But what about stay at home dads, or women who aren’t moms but stay home? They probably don’t care too much about the minivan so the money my marketing team spent on that time slot is partially wasted.

What if there was a smarter way? A way that my marketing team could make sure that our ad reaches only the people who actually care about a minivan? That’s where Google comes in. Google has all of this metadata about you, and it’s advanced AI is constantly going through it trying to understand your interests. Now instead of my marketing team buying a time slot and hoping it reaches the right people we can go to Google and tell them specifically ‘we want this ad to reach the late twenties to mid-thirties caucasian females with at least two children who’ve shown interests in sports’. Google can then take that requirement and use its massive database of metadata about everyone to make sure that the ads reach the people who meet these criteria.

That is how Google makes its money, and that’s why Google won’t sell your data. Your data is only valuable if it’s private. Let’s take another look at that example, but this time let’s pretend that Google is selling all of the data it gets on people. My marketing puts out the requirement for ads on a minivan; this time however two companies provide ad distribution. Google wants to charge my company $500 a month to reach 1,000,000 people but Ad company 2 only wants $300 a month for the same 1,000,000 people. Why would I pay Google an extra $200 a month to reach the same demographics? I wouldn’t.

By following this logic we can see that Google would have made some money from selling the data but they would miss out on the long term money from being able to charge monthly for ads; however, if Google keeps all the metadata to themselves than I as a marketing team have a very different choice.

Now my choice is to pay Google $500 a month to reach 1,000,000 people or pay Ad company 2 $300 a month to reach 100,000 people. Each customer is another potential sale. Now Google can continue to make money each month off the sale of ad distribution. There’s also no telling what Ad Company 2 does with the data, perhaps they sold it to a different ad company and now there are three contenders all fighting for the same

Do you see now what Google is actually selling? They’re not selling data about you, they’re selling a target package on you. They’re selling how marketers can reach you. That is worth so much more money than the data about you.

Now I want to be clear about something else as well. There are definitely companies that do sell data, and Google absolutely does buy data from companies. A prime example of this is Disqus, whom I use for comments. They are also very upfront about the fact that they sell your data. Someone like Disqus doesn’t have a need to guard all this data because they don’t own an ad distribution network.

So can we please stop saying Google sells your data and start saying what they actually do?

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