Google’s Secret Garden

I’ve decided that what Google is doing is the Web services-version of AOL’s once-formidable “walled garden” strategy.

In the walled garden, users had to log in and stay within the AOL service—making the challenge for AOL one of constantly adding new features to entice loyal usage, a virtually impossible task when the Web was exploding with new voices—and the wall was slowly torn down by the diversity of destinations a user selected to visit while online.

In Google’s “secret garden” strategy, the company hopes to engage users through a variety of free services that allow it to collect information about individuals in order to better target advertising. The secret is the fact that your explicit relationship with Google, that is the times you search and create an ad-placement opportunity, is orchestrated by all the non-explicit contacts you provide Google to information about you. It slowly extracts your information, building a portfolio of value based on that information and leaving you a ghost of your former private self that is unaware of the deep dependency on Google for access to information.

The danger is that, as the primary enabler of content monetization, Google’s role verges on that of social and intellectual Leviathan, the imperial institution that exerts total power in exchange for bringing and preserving order.

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Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.

8 thoughts on “Google’s Secret Garden”

  1. Seems like a covert Big Brother agenda to me. Now I don’t want to sound paranoid, but the fact that a company is doing the spying and not the government seems like semantics to me. The fact that the information is gathered at all, is just begging for it to be misused or mishandled.

    Ohh, and as a added negative….this will make it even harder to hide how much porn I view online from the wife…

    Consider me a non-believer.

  2. Snoopy—a non-believer in my theory or a non-believer in the idea of a single company controlling so much data?

    Another negative, I think, is that by favoring certain sources over others, such as sources that primarily use the word “liberal” or “conservative” as a negative adjective, Google can shape political debates. Let’s call it “Yellow Search,” since it’s just another iteration of the news sources becoming political engines.

  3. I am a non-believer in the idea of a single company controlling so much data.

    I think that the gathering of information in this way is dangerous. I know it falls under the veil of a company seeking a new way to be business savvy, but it is a stepping stone to more intrusive and illegal practices. It is similar to the stripping of people’s rights in a time of crisis for the greater good. I think that if a country as great as the United States is (the envy of the world) wants to have rights for its people, then those rights should be absolute. Not bended in times of crisis, or for profit. Of course as mentioned before in another post, being on the internet is almost an acceptance by the user as an invitation for a certain amount of commercial advertising, but when the advertising becomes tracking…I think that we have crossed a serious line.

    Snoopy

  4. “Snoopy”, the big difference is that you can choose to enter into a relationship with Google, but you cannot choose to decline a relationship with your local political structure.

    I agree with Mitch… broadcast television actually sold its audience, not its programming.

    Can it be stopped? I don’t think so — in fact, I think it will likely spread, as it becomes cheaper and cheaper to learn more and more, about more and more people. Faceting our personal data among different providers will likely become the popular defense, I suspect.

  5. John…

    How can you enter into a relationship with any search engine? My point is that once this becomes an accepted practice for Google, all others will fall in line to keep up. You will not have a choice, your online experience will be tracked no matter what your feelings about it. I just think that big business seems to get away with a lot of things that cause harm in the long run. There are so many good uses for the internet. The tracking of people seems shady to me, and is leading us down a dark road.

    Snoopy

  6. Snoopy—I agree that the tracking is troubling, both because it reveals our private interests and because it hijacks information value the people create and hands it over to Google.

    You can enter into a relationship with a search engine by signing up for personalized services (Google just offered personalized homepages and MyYahoo has been doing it for years). Likewise, accepting cookies is another way you remain in a relationship.

    I believe Google’s gone much further with intrusions into personal information than Yahoo, though. The GMail and IM services user agreements grant Google the right to index your messages and use them in placing ads. Hopefully, people will realize that these “free” services come at a very high price.

  7. This is different from the early AOL strategy – in the olden days, you couldn’t get out of that walled garden at all. An attractive collection of services that has plenty of easy-to-access competition isn’t anywhere near as bad.

    The better comparison is with the old ad model for television, newspapers, magazines. In the old bargain, we got subsidized content in exchange for an ad-supported content in one-way media. In the new bargain, connectivity and content is subsidized on an open, any-to-any network. We trade some privacy for the subsidy.

    One way for Google to do less evil would be to put a price tag on privacy. For $10 or $20 or $50, whatever, you can have ad-free, spy-free email, websearching, video, wifi.

  8. Adina—Let me qualify my statement, then. It’s like AOL after they allowed some Net access. Either way, I do not think that the trade-off is sufficient, because only connectivity and functionality, not content, is subsidized in any significant way. The creation of meaning is far and away the most expensive effort involved in the secret garden, but as we’ve seen, Google’s motive is to drive down the price of that content.

    I can’t imagine Google putting a price on privacy, because it would be explicit acknowledgement of the value they are creating from each user.

    Nevertheless, we should not pay for privacy, we should keep the transaction focused on the value added, where users can set the price for the functionality they want.

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