Yahoo's Data Retention Move Puts Pressure on Google, Microsoft

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-12-18 Print this article Print

Some readers chimed in regarding my position that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft seemed headed for zero retention policies in 2009, my response to Yahoo's reduction of the length of time it stores users' search records from 13 months to three months.

As I noted in a response to a comment, I managed to speak to Microsoft privacy strategy honcho Brendon Lynch last night, Dec. 17.

I asked him what he thought of Yahoo's move, which came just weeks after Microsoft agreed that six months is a fair duration of data retention so long as Google and Yahoo agree to that time frame.

Lynch replied that search engines do need a certain amount of data to run their search engines, so zero retention is not feasible, and reiterated Microsoft's call for some standardization around a six-month retention period and strong anonymization methods.

Eh. Take from that what you will. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have to be careful about what they say heading into the major February meeting with the European Commission's data retention group.

I believe that Microsoft and Google are privately furious at Yahoo for lowering the bar to three months. Microsoft is at 18 months, Google at nine months. Yahoo's move will increase pressure on Google and Microsoft to lower their retention periods, perhaps even before they meet with the EC party next year. How long before Google and Microsoft reduce their time frames?

Three months' worth of user data, as I noted yesterday, might as well be no months. We can debate that all day, but what I really want to do is spotlight some salient reader comments, which you can peruse here. I pull out my favorites in this post.

Wrote Barry about why Yahoo would pull such a drastic move:

I see this move primarily as a stop-gap strategy for Yahoo, who is still casting about for an identity in an increasingly crowded market space. None the less, it's a smart move. Privacy laws eventually will catch up to these companies and they will be required to change their data retention policies anyway. Might as well score some goodwill brownie points in the process.

I'm right there with you, Barry. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft can only stall for so long. Let's hope they're figuring out less intrusive ways to offer their search services without letting the quality suffer.

EntrepreNerd meanwhile smells a conspiracy afoot at Yahoo to devalue its search to fend off Microsoft. Hmmmmm. Okay, so Yahoo reduced data retention to three months just to shred its core business, alienating stockholders further, to keep Microsoft from buying it? Wow. What do you think of that?

If you are Yahoo! and have MS breathing down your neck to buy out JUST your Search, which would leave Yahoo! a pointless and sad company in my mind, and Google has been forced to halt all dealings with you, what is your next move? You devalue the Search service in the eyes of would-be shark investors and the buyout crew at MS, while at the same time enhancing the publics perception of you.

I was especially intrigued by this idea from meanguy:

Many online behaviors are seasonal. Take for example holiday shopping. If you don't think that knowing what users did this xmas isn't valuable next xmas, you're mistaken. What's the data retention policy on that grocery card you swipe for thirty cents off bananas? I want Amazon to maintain all my shopping data indefinitely. Why? Because it has value to me. If Google can make my online experience better, they can keep as much crap as they want as long as they want. Note: serving up ads that are more interesting to me counts as better experience.

This is intriguing to me because I agree with it 100 percent, so I guess that makes me a search engine sympathizer.

Hank tempered this idea a bit, responding to meanguy that those great grocery store cards know what consumers buy midweek, but they have no need to know who the person is. Search should work the same way, he says:

Google and friends can certainly compile data about my searching proclivities without needing to associate it forever with Hank. Let them have everything and anything for a month or three to analyze, dissect, and study; however, let them then dissociate the data from the identifiable ME and turn it into something statistically useful. Like the grocer, they can meld my pre-holiday buying habits into something usable for their needs, which is something greater than what I do as Hank. Our collective tendencies are meaningful in data mining. It is NOT important to know what Hank bought. If you want a particular store to remember your hat size (i.e., Amazon), then feel free to let them store that information for you. Demand that they retain that data on you! I, meanwhile, will insist that Google NOT retain my personal information any longer than it should reasonably take them to find some useful patterns.

Again, he has also a valid and fair point. But would his suggestion work from a technological and business standpoint without detracting from the vendors' search businesses? I have no idea. It hasn't been done before with any measure of success.

Clearly, lots of theories abound. How will this search data retention drama play out in 2009? |

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