Google Sets Plan to Sell Users’ Endorsements

SAN FRANCISCO — Google, following in
Facebook’s footsteps, wants to sell
users’ endorsements to marketers to
help them hawk their wares.
On Friday, Google announced an
update to its terms of service that
allows the company to include adult
users’ names, photos and comments in
ads shown across the Web, based on
ratings, reviews and posts they have
made on Google Plus and other Google
services like YouTube.
When the new ad policy goes live Nov.
11, Google will be able to show what the
company calls shared endorsements on
Google sites and across the Web, on the
more than two million sites in Google’s
display advertising network, which are
viewed by an estimated one billion
If a user follows a bakery on Google
Plus or gives an album four stars on the
Google Play music service, for instance,
that person’s name, photo and
endorsement could show up in ads for
that bakery or album.
Google said it would give users the
chance to opt out of being included in
the new endorsements, and people
under the age of 18 will automatically
be excluded.
Such product endorsements, especially
coming from friends and
acquaintances, are a powerful lure to
brands, replicating word-of-mouth
marketing on a broad scale.
But as Facebook has learned, many
users have strong and skeptical feelings
about their endorsements being used in
ads without their explicit permission.
“The trick to any advertising like this is
to avoid coming across as creepy to
your user base and have them say, ‘I
didn’t want anyone else to know that,'”
said Zachary Reiss-Davis, a Forrester
analyst, speaking generally about
social ads.
In a notice to users posted on its site on
Friday, Google said, “Feedback from
people you know can save you time
and improve results for you and your
friends across all Google services.”
Facebook, the world’s largest social
network with 1.2 billion users
worldwide, has been aggressively
marketing such social endorsements.
For example, if you post that you love
McDonald’s new Mighty Wings on the
chain’s Facebook page, McDonald’s
could pay to broadcast your kind
words to all your friends, effectively
using you as a product endorser.
The company declined to specify
exactly how it planned to use
endorsements in advertising, what the
ads would look like or how brands
choose whether to include shared
Facebook does not allow its users to opt
out of such ads, which it calls
sponsored stories, although users can
limit how their actions on the social
network are used in some other types
of advertising.
Google Plus users, on the other hand,
will be able to opt out of inclusion in
ads on the social network’s settings
If a Google Plus user has shared
comments with a limited set of people,
only people in that circle will see the
personalized ads. Ratings and reviews
on services like Google Plus Local are
automatically public and can be used in
ads, unless a user opts out of shared
Google had previously shown so-called
+1s, votes of approval similar to
Facebook likes, in ads across Google
sites and its ad network. Google plans
to expand that to include “follows,”
comments, ratings, reviews and other
interactions. Those who have already
elected to opt out of using +1s in ads
will automatically be opted out of the
Though 190 million users post on
Google Plus and 390 million use the
social network indirectly by sharing on
other Google sites like YouTube,
Google’s variety of services gives it a
potentially wider reach.
Currently, Google does not have an ad
unit incorporating more social data
ready to be used by advertisers, the
company said. Instead, the company
wants the ability to create such an ad
unit in the future and is notifying users
in advance.
Although advertising irks some users —
even while it helps support free
services — social ads have proved
particularly contentious.
Facebook recently settled a class-action
lawsuit that claimed it had not
adequately notified users about how it
was using endorsements. In late August,
it tried to impose a new privacy policy
that would have given the company
clearer rights to run social ads without
a user’s explicit permission. After
privacy groups complained, the Federal
Trade Commission began an inquiry
into the changes, prompting Facebook
to suspend the process.
Google, which is under the supervision
of the F.T.C. for a previous privacy
violation and has agreed to privacy
audits and fines for privacy
misrepresentations, is taking pains to
show that it has considered the privacy
implications of the new ads.
It will notify users of the change with
banners on Google’s home page, in
search results, in Google Plus
notifications and elsewhere. And posts
by users who have registered as being
under age 18 will not appear in ads,
though their posts can still appear in
search results or other places that are
not commercial in nature.
Shared endorsements are the latest
example of the continual push by
Google and other Web companies to
collate in one place the reams of
personal information people share
online and use it to personalize
people’s online experiences.
Privacy advocates say companies do
not generally get meaningful consent
from their users before using such
“Users reasonably expect that their
comments should be used as they
intended," said Marc Rotenberg,
executive director of the Electronic
Privacy Information Center, which has
tangled with numerous Internet
companies, most recently Facebook,
over the use of personal information in
ads. “People don’t typically race
around handing their friends leaflets
and advertisements.”