Birthday wishes from my search engine

Today is my birthday, and I’ve had some lovely birthday messages from friends, family and colleagues… Oh yes and Google. Yes – my search engine wished me a happy birthday today. While perhaps not particularly spectacular, I had mixed feelings about this, and began to consider what this means for Google and for me as an internet user.

I wouldn’t say the message had the desired impact since my first reaction was ‘wow, that’s a bit creepy’. However, on further reflection I decided that, actually, this reveals nothing that I didn’t know already – Google knows everything about me and so do various other companies and organisations. And really, companies such as Facebook have far far more information on me other than just my date of birth.

Like I say, we tell Facebook our birthday, we sometimes tell our favourite retailers, but I’m not aware of ever having told Google directly when my birthday is. Of course, this isn’t difficult for them to ascertain but really, what I eventually asked is why? Why has Google decided to make this fact (that they know everything about us) so apparent. Transparency? To form a bond with me?  Why, I ask my colleagues, does Google want to actively promote the fact that they’re collecting my data?

Brand loyalty, I decide, is what this is about. As this is certainly something Google has been trying to develop in efforts elsewhere, encouraging us to use Google+, for instance, by explaining that use of this will benefit presence on search rankings.

While I understand that many people will view this as a nice and novel way to search on their birthday, I’m still not sure that I particularly want that kind of personal relationship with my search engine. Not only does it remind me that Google has collected a LOT of data about me, but also that my searches through them are now tailored to me. I can’t simply search on the internet anymore and find what anyone else might – my results are particular to me.  My search results will be influenced by my past searches and online activity, known interests, and by the contacts in my Google hangouts.

Of course, there are some clear benefits to this search engine evolution, as we move towards a more curated online experience, but personally I feel Google should be careful not to alienate people too much as they continue to make developments. The vast majority of people feel uncomfortable about the fact that so much of their information is collected, shared and sold by companies without their consent. So I question whether there might come a time when people decide they want out, and new solutions are developed to fill this void.

This will be bad news for everyone because we want people to be able to search on the internet and find the information they’re looking for – Google is great for this! But I think Google needs to question whether it’s striking the right balance with initiatives like this one.

The author

Nikki is a director and co-founder of Fourth Day

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