Post Snowden, Google Users Change Habits


If people don't tell you the truth, how can you tell? And, more to the point, how can you figure out the truth?

It is this problem with which Google, its competitors, and search marketers must increasingly contend, according to a new study out of Cambridge, Mass.

The study -- conducted and authored by Catherine Tucker, a management science professor at MIT specializing in marketing and economics; and Alex Marthews, president of anti-warrantless surveillance advocacy group Digital Fourth -- examined Google search trends in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations of NSA and other government surveillance over the past year. Their research revealed that people in the United States and several other countries have apparently been self-censoring in their Googling habits since news of Snowden's leaks to the press broke.

Using 2012 and 2013 Google Trends data to compare search habits in 11 countries before and after June 6, 2013 (when news broke that the NSA was tracking Internet activity and monitoring cellular subscribers), Tucker and Marthews found that searches for Department of Homeland Security watchlist terms and dozens of other terms deemed via survey "embarrassing," "private," and/or "trouble[some]" have fallen by a statistically significant amount. This is particularly true in the US, the UK, and Canada. The researchers compared these search trends against those of a control group of Google's "top" 50 search terms of 2013.

"This study is the first to provide substantial empirical documentation of a chilling effect... that appears to be related to increased awareness of government surveillance online," the researchers write.

Already, this "increased awareness" has harmed the US cloud market. The rest of the tech sector, Tucker and Marthews argue, could well follow because of it.

"At the most limited end of the spectrum, it could steer [international users] away from conducting certain searches on US search engines," they write. "At the most severe end of the spectrum, they might choose to use non-US search engines." Tucker and Marthews even acknowledge that the total number of searches for the sensitive terms they tested for may not have actually decreased -- but, rather, decreased on Google (whose data is known to have been compromised by the NSA). Indeed, DuckDuckGo -- a search engine service that boasts the slogan "Google tracks you. We don't" -- saw a 90% rise in its direct queries within two weeks of the first NSA revelations on June 6.

These issues may also cause SEO specialists to rethink their keyword strategies. For a very basic example, a disaster recovery firm could see fewer hits because of reduced searches on, say, "disaster." Additionally, if people aren't Googling -- and thus submitting data that drives targeted marketing -- the trend could stunt ROI for online campaigns. This, in turn, could lead to reduced revenue for companies like Google as marketers hedge their bets with other search marketing options.

Tucker and Marthews suspect that Google could be similarly vulnerable in other avenues of its business, beyond search. "For example," they write, "as Google's services are embedded in a large array of products, [the government surveillance revelations] could potentially hinder sales of Android-enabled mobile phones."

"On the basis of the effects we find, the strong possibility of substantial economic effects exists," the pair conclude. "Such potential adverse economic impacts should be incorporated into the thinking of policy makers regarding the appropriateness of mass surveillance programs."

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Joe Stanganelli, Attorney & Marketer

Joe Stanganelli is founder and principal of Beacon Hill Law, a Boston-based general practice law firm.  His expertise on legal topics has been sought for several major publications, including U.S. News and World Report and Personal Real Estate Investor Magazine. 

Joe is also a communications consultant.  He has been working with social media for many years -- even in the days of local BBSs (one of which he served as Co-System Operator for), well before the term "social media" was invented.

From 2003 to 2005, Joe ran Grandpa George Productions, a New England entertainment and media production company. He has also worked as a professional actor, director, and producer.  Additionally, Joe is a produced playwright.

When he's not lawyering, marketing, or social-media-ing, Joe writes scripts, songs, and stories.

He also finds time to lose at bridge a couple of times a month.

Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeStanganelli

Also, check out his blog .

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Re: Google Integration
  • 7/9/2014 6:40:08 PM
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..

CandidoNick writes


To add, Lyndon, the integration is already so intricate, that we would be lost without them. If something were to happen to Google...


 

The intricacy of Goggle's integration gives it massive power — the basic conduit of nearly all commercial ... marketing? yes ... advertising? .... more than that .... existence? more like it.

In the hands of a single corporation.

That to me is what's really creepy.

 

Re: Google Integration
  • 7/9/2014 10:38:12 AM
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This marks the first of me hearing of their official slogan! That is just perfect.

Re: Google Integration
  • 7/8/2014 6:25:45 PM
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To add, Lyndon, the integration is already so intricate, that we would be lost without them. If something were to happen to Google...

 

A spooky propsect. But perhaps spookier is how spooky the loss of Google would be for us. Dependency? Yep.

Re: Quantify & qualify
  • 7/7/2014 8:19:29 AM
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Hi Joe, thanks for giving me more context. It'd be interested to see a comparative over time -- to see if these results change the further away we get from the Snowden blow-up. Do people go back to the same-old, same-old in terms of how they search -- or does this new, more cautious searching become the norm? Perhaps the researchers are wondering the same and we'll see more from them over time.

Re: Google Integration
  • 7/4/2014 4:31:24 AM
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@CandidoNick @LyndonHenry: Agreed that Google is making terrific strides in taking over the world (which, let's be honest, is what we should fully expect from a company whose motto is "Don't be evil").

> Businesses today depend on Google page rankings to make themselves known to potential customers, i.e., the public at large.

It will be interesting to see how these continued chilled effects in conjunction with the controversial "right to be forgotten" in Europe will impact this in the long run.  Perhaps a new search champion is around the corner?

Re: Where is that yellow sticky?
  • 7/4/2014 4:26:07 AM
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FWIW, these days many security experts now outright encourage many users to write down their passwords -- assessing that, with a sufficiently more complex and longer password, the risk of the piece of paper being compromised and misused is less than the risk of an easier password being hacked.

Of course, context can be everything, too.

Re: Quantify & qualify
  • 7/4/2014 4:23:04 AM
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Hi, Beth.  Thanks for asking this; it is important to be precise, especially for readers who may not want to click through to the study itself.

Whereas terms that users saw as having a low probability of "government trouble" saw a rise in traffic "presumably in line with the overall increase in Internet usage over the course of 2013...search terms that were rated as being more likely to get you in trouble with the U. S. government exhibited...an overall roughly 2.2 percentage point fall in search traffic on 'high government trouble'-rated search terms." (emphasis added)

What's more, comparisons of search volume related to other types of categories yielded similar results (e.g.,  neutral terms versus terms that would be likely to get one in trouble with a friend).  The paper includes handy bar graphs -- including both overall comparisons as well as country-by-country comparisons.

The searchers themselves?  Just all, everyday Googlers.  It was simply an analysis of Google Trends. 

The people who categorized the search terms as "high" or "low" in terms of likelihood of getting one in trouble, or in terms of privacy, were surveyed from a pool of nearly 6,000 Amazon Mechanical Turk users.

The researchers do qualify this as follows:

Similar crowdsourcing techniques have been used [by researchers] to design rankings for search results. Recent research into the composition of workers on Mechanical Turk has suggested that in general they are reliable and representative for use as subjects in psychological experiments. However, we recognize that in demographics they are likely to skew younger than the average population.

(citations omitted)


I would further reckon that these users are probably a bit more tech-savvy and privacy-minded (perhaps even more paranoid), for whatever it's worth.

Hope this context helps!

Re: Google Integration
  • 7/3/2014 11:53:51 PM
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..

CandidoNick writes


Google today is so integrated with our everyday life. Your phone? Google. Web browser? Google. Cloud documents? Google. I could keep going easily. Thing is, Google likes to pry into everything we do, enjoy, and even glance over, and contours an ad campaign for each individual Google user, based on those preferences. CREEPY.


 

Google has acquired prodigious power by becoming the central, key, indispensable mode for most business advertising. Businesses today depend on Google page rankings to make themselves known to potential customers, i.e., the public at large.

Print media ads have shrunk by orders of magnitude. Even physical location counts for less.

Google provides and controls the exclusive central "pipe" through which almost all businesses now make their presence and availablilty known to the general public.

That's an awful lotta power. Maybe dangerous?

 

Google Integration
  • 7/3/2014 2:45:41 PM
NO RATINGS

Google today is so integrated with our everyday life. Your phone? Google. Web browser? Google. Cloud documents? Google. I could keep going easily. Thing is, Google likes to pry into everything we do, enjoy, and even glance over, and contours an ad campaign for each individual Google user, based on those preferences. CREEPY.

Where is that yellow sticky?
  • 7/2/2014 6:38:25 PM
NO RATINGS

 

In the Freedom-of-Information article linked in the article for "watchlist terms" I am dismayed to find Homeland Security publishes a bunch of passwords.

The heading of Section 11.1 in this Analyst's Desktop Binder is

11.1 Passwords - See Internet Password Sheet

And then it proceeds to list a bunch of passwords.

All my efforts encouraging people to NEVER write down your passwords, seem futile if Homeland Security is publishing theirs in an internal document. Maybe I should be happy that the passwords are at least redacted in the publicly released version?

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