Google Toolbar Data Could Boost Web, but Will Microsoft or Yahoo Get There First?

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-08-02 Print this article Print

To improve the application development opportunities for Web developers all over the world, social and search software makers are calling for Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to share the data they collect on their search engine users through their browser toolbars.

Toolbar data is like a digital footprint or fingerprint, tracking users Web browsing habits, including Web visits, searches, ads clicked, purchases, time spent, location, etc.

Doug Sherrets, a competitive strategy manager at social app maker Slide, published an illuminating piece on Venture Beat Friday aimed at jumpstarting the conversation about this toolbar data.

Large search engine providers such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft cull lots of toolbar data from Web browsers because searches tell virtually everything about what users do online.

"Open Data is the Future of Web Discovery," is especially epic in length. But it's important and relevant, with a focus on how Google is in the best position to boost open Web development because it has so much toolbar data. In the post, Sherrets chronicles:

  • how toolbar data could be used to fortify the user experience;
  • discusses how much of it Google has compiled as the search supernova with 65 percent of the market;
  • notes how Facebook and Twitter, possibly through help with Microsoft and/or Yahoo, could feast at Google's expense by accessing this data;
  • hashes out the privacy concerns and some possible solutions (social filters and advanced privacy tools); and
  • gets other search and social software makers to talk about how valuable Google toolbar data would be to the app dev market (and consumers) if Google did this;
  • how reluctant Google is to cede toolbar to the open Web;

I'm reordering Sherrets' treatment of each point for brevity. On the first point, Sherrets notes that with Google's toolbar data developers could build services or apps with toolbar data to see what's hot now, this week, month or year for anything broken down by age, location and more.

For example, one "app might cover the most engaging communities online based on growth in time on particular parts of each Website compared to peers."

On what sort of data firepower Google has others don't:

Already Google indexes the Web in near real-time, and some former Googlers say the company could easily have a real-time view into most of the Web already. Imagine if Google made it easier to discover all the data it already knows about specific Web pages or content. Think of all the different kinds of content out there, and get ready for a long list of possibilities.

He cites trending Web pages and Websites (beyond Hot Trends), products, news, photos, tweets, status messages, comments, blog posts, books, games, searches or any other Web content. Trends on this content could be organized by unique visitors, upstream and downstream traffic, referrals, purchases, link sharing, clicks, demographics, etc.

While the world is Google's oyster with regards to data, Sherrets argues it's Google's iron-like grip on it that holds it back, creating opportunities for Facebook and Twitter, as he writes:

For now, at least, Google has a data advantage and so might be better than most for telling you what's new around you. That said, this data gap isn't insurmountable for Facebook and Twitter. Either could eventually acquire toolbar-style reach by building large enough businesses around search or creating services that make users want to share their full data. They could also partner with a company like Yahoo or Microsoft to get the data.

Ouch, that would certainly be one way the new Microhoo combination could put a chokehold on Google: leverage toolbar data. I'm intrigued, how about you?!

However, Sherrets is also fair to point out the dangers Google and others face in sharing such data; it could violate all kinds of user data privacy practices and promises.

Privacy issues associated with using toolbar data include the risk of exposing users' identities during raw data sharing between sites, social engineering issues, such as when Facebook's Beacon exposed user purchasing habits, and legal challenges that have stopped companies like NebuAd from using ISP data.

He quotes Satya Patel, a former Googler and now a principal at Battery Ventures: "I just don't see any company that has toolbar data making that data accessible to others. It's too valuable and too much of a privacy concern. If you think about it, the data that Google has from the Google Toolbar and Google Analytics is incredible and basically can create a real-time map of the Web."

Sherrets is most murky on how to resolve this issue. He writes about using content filters to "zoom out from the closest connections so you're unlikely to draw connections from info you see and what people you know are doing and advanced privacy tools that help users avoid sharing content based on Web browsing data with someone who might connect it back to a friend.

Sherrets acknowledges Google's concern about sharing such data after speaking with some Google engineers recently:

Googlers tell me it's highly unlikely Google would release toolbar data because the data is too valuable, there are privacy concerns and users might be surprised to see how much Google knows about them.

However, he also notes how Google manages to use toolbar data for powering services without creating user mistrust, so maybe other companies can do so as well. Clearly, Sherrets is not sold on Google's privacy argument.

As a counterpoint, Sherrets pointed out the risk Google has in not doing this:

Maybe the data is too important to Google so the company must hold it close to maintain its competitive advantage, but perhaps Yahoo and Microsoft would be willing to share data with select partners while tightly protecting user privacy for a chance to increase their competitiveness with Google.

He doesn't exactly say it, but what if Microsoft and Yahoo shared their toolbar data with Facebook and Twitter? Would that give those companies some heretofore unimaginable competitive firepower? By extension, would this spur Google to share its toolbar data?

One could also argue that this kind of transparency would do wonders to counter Google's growing image as a monopolist of Microsoftian proportions. Federal regulators are increasingly hounding Google to be more open, and less hungry for user data.

Google's interactions with top DOJ antitrust legal eagle Christine Varney could get ugly. If Google opened toolbar data to the Web, it could show a willingness to sacrifice some closely guarded secrets to benefit third-party programmers.

Does the value of keeping this information close to the vest outweigh Google's perception by many as a growing danger to Web users? Sherrets doesn't address this in the post.

Ultimately, Sherrets argues all search providers should do this:

In the meantime, those potential advances in search, discovery and more are being stifled. Developers using Twitter, Yahoo and Microsoft search APIs could make better services for users with more data from those companies as well as Google, Facebook, Mozilla and others like data analytics companies.

The call for search engine providers to share its toolbar day is hardly new, but this piece underscores how the data is more valuable than ever with the explosion in Facebook (250 million-plus users and rising), Twitter and social software growth. Hence Sherrets' interest as an employee at Slide and, to be transparent, a Facebook shareholder.

What do you think? Pressing issue or a petty concern? |

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