Alex Campbell, deputy managing director at The Search Agency UK, gives his view on the Microsoft Scroogle campaign, which has accused Google of reading the private emails of Gmail users to spam them with ads.
Microsoft created its Scroogled.com website late last year as a central platform for the type of Google-bashing that the Microsoft team previously had to confine to the occasional press release or jibe. Its first big target was the update to Google Shopping that transformed the channel from one that combined organic listings and ads into a purely paid model.
Despite the fact that Google Shopping was a complete mess of duplicate and badly tagged listings before this change, I was still on Microsoft’s side as they called out Google on this and made the very valid point that Google had explicitly forsworn paid inclusion in listings within its initial IPO letter and its SEC filing.
Similarly, as Microsoft has now turned the main focus of Scroogled onto Gmail’s advertising program, I can’t help but engage with the fears that it is stirring up: Google’s reading your emails, which you don’t want, in order to show you more ads, which you don’t want, right in your inbox. That’s bound to make you angry, and make you wish there was an alternative provider who could free you from all this privacy intrusion. As virtually every other link on the Scroogled site suggests, could this be Outlook.com…?
Maybe. But the problem is, I don’t trust Microsoft any more than Google and I don’t think there’s any reason anyone else should. The tone of the whole Scroogled campaign comes across as a ham-fisted smear campaign that puts one in mind of those appalling US political ads that pair dark music and unflattering photos to deliver a completely unreasoned one-sided view (my personal favourite was an anti-Romney ad being run by one of his Republican contenders during the 2012 primaries – the gist: you can’t trust this man, he speaks French!). This tone may not be surprising when we learn that the Scroogled campaign has been masterminded by Mark Penn, a former political strategist/bulldog for the Clinton administration and now in charge of 'strategic and special projects' at Microsoft. And like a smear campaign, many observers will be minded to think about the team behind the message – how squeaky clean are they really?
In Microsoft’s case, the answer is probably that it is every bit as dirty as Google. When Danny Sullivan dug into Bing’s claims against Google Shopping in the article cited above, he quickly found that Bing Shopping was also guilty of paid inclusion and also complained about the difficulty of maintaining quality results with an organic product listing model. With Gmail vs. Outlook.com it may well be true that Gmail shows ads in your inbox and Outlook currently doesn’t, but there’s no reason to believe that this represents Microsoft taking the moral high ground at commercial expense: it comes from a calculation of gains. If Microsoft thought it could be profitably generating and running the same type of ads as Google, I’m quite confident it would be. Based on the gulf that exists between Google’s and Microsoft’s search ad technology, my assumption would be that Microsoft isn’t currently capable of running such ads or, if it is, doesn’t believe it could do so profitably. The obvious answer then is to bash Google for doing so and hope that Outlook.com gains a few thousand new users from doing so.
As the PRISM affair has made abundantly clear, digital privacy in any hard and fast sense is a myth. The fact that Microsoft was in the midst of its high profile ‘Your Privacy is Our Priority’ campaign at the point that its deep involvement in PRISM was revealed highlights this perfectly: talking about privacy in sweeping ethical terms is about marketing spin, nothing more. You can jump ship from Gmail if that makes sense to you, but you should be under no illusion that you’re going somewhere where ethics and business are balanced any differently.