FT : Google Knows What You Will Do Next Summer

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Google would like to be your new best friend.  The search engine is working on how to gather so much information about individual users that it could even offer suggestions on how to spend free time or what career move to make.  Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said this week that being able to acquire more personal data was a key element in the company’s expansion plans.  Customised services such as iGoogle, which enables users to personalise their own search page and publish their own content, should be more valuable to individuals.  […..Google’s ambition to maximise the personal information it holds on users is so great that the search engine envisages a day when it can tell people what jobs to take and how they might spend their days off…..Asked how Google might look in five years’ time, Mr Schmidt said: “We are very early in the total information we have within Google.  The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation.  “The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ “…..]  The details gathered about their private lives can be used to sell more accurately targeted advertisements.  Since this form of marketing commands higher rates than a more broadly based approach, the initiative makes business sense.  Other search engines are working on similar lines. The drive to build up and use this sort of database prompts broader questions.  The first is whether it is feasible.  Gathering and manipulating the data will require great sophistication for a search engine to avoid offering advice that is so offbeam it undermines the claims of familiarity.  The misplaced recommendation based on an inability to distinguish between a consistent personal preference and an occasional purchase for someone else is already commonplace in online shopping.  Moreover, since individually tailored search services are optional, they will have to offer significant additional benefits for users to be happy to allow personal details to be stored and shared.  The better the quality of the basic search facility, the higher the standard the enhanced service must attain. Beyond the technical challenges lies the issue of privacy.  Even though people using these services do so from choice not compulsion, they still need some protection from wholesale invasion of their cyberspace.  This requires restrictions on how the data can be used, and clarity about where these limits lie.  The underlying principle must be informed consent.  This means that information should be used only for the purpose for which it was gathered.  In general, this should mean that it is not handed over to another organisation without the user’s express say-so.  Even if this stance cannot always be maintained – for example, if a government demands information at the time of a security crackdown – then the risk that the data may be passed on in certain circumstances must be made explicit.  Search engines have a great opportunity in personalised services.  Exploiting it will depend on getting the rules right.

References :
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/20bf4f66-0960-11dc-a349-000b5df10621.html http://www.ft.com/cms/s/df7d8850-08ca-11dc-b11e-000b5df10621.html

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