How Google Tracks Your Personal Information
An insider’s account of the dark side of search engine marketing
When lazy journalists are pessimistic about Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, they say stuff like: “Even Orwell couldn’t have predicted that we’d willingly bring Big Brother into our own homes.”
What they fail to mention is our willingness to exchange privacy for convenience didn’t start with the advent of virtual assistants. It started in the early 2000s, when people—in return for having access to Google products and seeing more relevant ads—allowed Google to have all their data.
Today, Google provides marketers like me with so much of your personal data that we can infer more about you from it than from any camera or microphone.
There have never been more opportunities for marketers like me to exploit your data. Today, 40,000 Google search queries are conducted every second. That’s 3.5 billion searches per day, 1.2 trillion searches per year.
When you search on Google, your query travels to a data center, where up to 1,000 computers work together to retrieve the results and send them back to you. This whole process usually happens in less than one-fifth of a second.
Most people don’t realize that while this is going on, an even faster and more mysterious process is happening behind the scenes: An auction is taking place.
For as long as you’ve been using Google, Google has been building a “citizen profile” on you.
Every internet search contains keywords, and the keywords you just entered into Google are fought over by advertisers. Each advertiser who offers a product related to your keywords wants its ad to be seen and clicked.
Then, like cartoon toys scrambling to get back in the right order before their owner throws on the light, the ads finalize their positions before your customized results page loads on your screen.
Generally, your first four search results—what you see before having to scroll down—are all paid advertisements. If you didn’t know this, you’re not alone. More than 50 percent of people between the ages of 18–34 can’t differentiate between an ad and an organic result on Google. For those over 35, that percentage grows proportionally higher. (To maximize this percentage, Google is always testing to find ad visuals that blend in best with organic results.)
Once you click on an ad, your information passes through to search engine marketers, where it’s forever stored in an AdWords account, never to be erased.
In case you were starting to feel a semblance of happiness, what with the holidays around the corner, here is a complete checklist of everything Google knows about you—thereby all the ways you’re tracked—as of December 2018:
- Your age
- Your income
- Your gender
- Your parental status
- Your relationship status
- Your browsing history (long-term and short-term)
- Your device (phone, tablet, desktop, TV)
- Your physical location
- The age of your child (toddler, infant, etc.)
- How well you did in high school
- The degree you hold
- The time (of day) of your Google usage
- The language you speak
- Whether you’ve just had a major life event
- Your home ownership status
- Your mobile carrier
- The exact words you enter into Google search
- The context and topics of the websites you visit
- The products you buy
- The products you have almost bought
- Your Wi-Fi type
- Your proximity to a cell tower
- Your app installation history
- The amount of time you spend on certain apps
- Your operating system
- The contents of your email
- The time you spend on certain websites
- Whether you’re moving (e.g., into a new home)
- Whether you’re moving (e.g., walking or on a train)
* The above targeting methods are made available to search engine marketers by Google within marketers’ Ads UI. Info is also freely available here.
For as long as you’ve been using Google, Google has been building a “citizen profile” on you. This profile contains:
In 2019, we will be coming close to realizing the Holy Grail of search engine marketing: multidevice attribution. When this tech is realized, ads will follow searchers seamlessly—not only across channels (e.g., social, organic, and email) but across devices (e.g., from mobile to tablet to laptop to TV to desktop).
Depending on your brand loyalty, for example, your TV will emit a hyper-frequency during certain commercials. Undetectable by your obsolete human ear, this signal can only be picked up by a nearby cell phone. If a Nike commercial plays on your TV, and then you pick up your phone and Google “Nike shoes,” your conversion path has been linked from TV to phone. Nice.
Despite the surveillance bleeding into nearly every aspect of our lives, there’s little information available to the public about what’s really going on.
Marketers already know if you’re a daily commuter. And they show you ads for products that daily commuters would be interested in buying, like headphones, pre-worn leather laptop bags, and handkerchiefs to hoarsely sob into. How do marketers know you’re a commuter? Easy: The frequency your cell phone pings passing cell towers. If the pings occur close together, a marketer can conclude that you’re standing in an object moving at a great rate of speed, with infrequent interruptions—also known as a train. (If it’s the Long Island Rail Road you’re riding, interruptions might be frequent. Heh.)
Search for a product on your phone and then physically walk into a store. Do that, in that order, and chances are Google used your phone’s GPS data to connect your ad click and your in-store purchase.
In order to provide marketers with further detail about your in-store (offline) purchases, Google has acquired (paid millions for) Mastercard credit card data. The company has acknowledged it has access to about 70 percent of U.S. credit and debit card sales through “third-party partnerships.” We will look back on this number and consider it quaint.
Back in December 2008, Hal Roberts, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, spoke about Google Ads as a form of “gray surveillance.” Roberts described Google as “a system of collective intelligence” that, along with marketers, hoarded and exploited your data.
But unlike other forms of surveillance, Google couldn’t kill you with it or throw you in jail.
Google Ads was gray surveillance because the exploitation, Roberts said, was hard to detect on the individual level. But, he said, it was already playing “a central role in the creation of social discourse online.” And 10 years later, the exploitation on Google Ads is even harder to detect. Despite the surveillance bleeding into nearly every aspect of our lives, there’s little information available to the public about what’s really going on.
In 2019, I’d like to change that.
People tell Google things they confess nowhere else — not to their spouses, doctors, or shrinks.
Through this series, I will reveal everything I know about the dark side of search engine marketing. I will explain, in everyday language, how Google and Google Ads work “under the hood” to track your data.
Then I will expose, from an insider’s perspective, what the vast majority of the public doesn’t know: how Google Ads is abused by search engine marketers and how people are essentially bought and sold through this platform. I will cover what Google has tried to do to fix Google Ads. Finally, I will provide readers with all the steps they need to protect themselves from exploitation on Google—including how to take back control of their data from insidious advertisers and those search engine marketers who rig the game.
Today, people tell Google things they confess nowhere else—not to their spouses, doctors, or shrinks. But Google users would not be so forthright with the search engine if they understood how far down this rabbit hole goes. With the insider information I will provide, I hope readers can return to a place where Google is not the only option available to tell their fears, regrets, hopes, and dreams.
By the end of this series, readers will be equipped with the knowledge to rethink their relationship with Google. And if some readers decide that Google is still their search engine of choice, they’ll be able to use the system, instead of the other way around.
Ready for part 2 in the series? It’s here.
Part 5 just came out. It’s here.