Google Needs Your Privacy To Tell You What You Want To Know

Last Updated Aug 27, 2010 5:09 PM EDT

Once again, Google (GOOG) has found itself in hot water with the privacy police again. Literally. Privacy regulators stopped one of the company's Street View mapping cars outside Paris "to verify that they stopped collecting Wi-Fi data," according to Yann Padova, French secretary general of the National Commission for Computing and Civil Liberties.

Google collects oodles of personal data -- what people look at and click on, where they are ... and considerably more, according to a patent application that became public yesterday. Called Programmable Search Engine, it gives an insight into how thoroughly the company depends on a vast array of information about people to figure out what it is they're trying to find. And it also explains why Google will continue to plunge into privacy hot water.

Technically, the application is about how people and subject-specific Web sites could pass information to a search engine to allow a Google to more effectively find what someone wants. But the details provide insight into why Google is so insistent on collecting as much personal information as it can get. Aside from advertising considerations -- and with an ad-driven revenue model, you can't minimize that -â€" it is clear that the company must depend on personal data to help it generate search results that could give it an edge in an increasingly competitive market.

For years, people have talked about the Tim Berners-Lee concept of the semantic web, in which systems could understand the meaning of information on the Internet. However, many search engines have had reasonable degrees of success in finding material related to a topic. The bigger problem, as Google indirectly points out in the application, is that no one necessarily understands the queries that people enter into the search engines:

Consider, for example a user query for "Canon Digital Rebel", which is the name of a currently popular digital camera. From the query alone it is impossible to determine the user's intent, for example, whether the user is interested in purchasing such a camera, or whether the user owns this camera already and needs technical support, or whether the user is interested in comparing the camera with competitive offerings, or whether the user is interested in learning to use this camera.
People use the same search terms to ultimately satisfy different needs. (Heaven help the person looking for digital information on Confederate artillery during the American Civil War.)

This is where the information Google has about people can come into play. Does a person own the camera in question? How much does her or she know about photography and digital technology? Is someone about to go on vacation? Where are local stores that might carry it? Searching about health issues would seem to beg for someone's medical history. Investment advice can differ by income level.

From Google's view, it needs the data to deliver more relevant results, or else it will find consumers looking for other sources of information -- such as Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing and social networks like Facebook -- putting the company into difficulties. But, as so often happens in business and life, what starts as a necessity becomes a liability. The privacy issues that come with collecting vast snapshots of personal lives create ire and opposition. Look at the reaction to a thought by Google CEO Eric Schmidt: "I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next."

Even knowing what someone wants can lead to worse search results. What if a person seeks something out of his or her usual milieu? I've found myself irritated with Google at times when I put an exact phrase in quotation marks and still find that the search engine tries to second guess what I want, although I'm specific for a reason, and returns things that are completely off the mark.

This gets back to Google's arrogance, which may be the company's biggest weakness -- the assumption that it knows better than competitors, customers, and business partners. It's why I wonder sometimes how long before Google loses its position and finds many cheering its slide.

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Image: Flickr user mahfrot, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.