Why You Should Take a Look at Google’s New Privacy Policy

Google plus Your World has the tech community up in arms about the impact of integrating Google+ into its search engine on the user experience. Yesterday I opened an email from Google that read, “We’re getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read…reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google.” I checked it out, and so should you.

Effective March 1, 2012, Google will start updating your search results based on the interests you’ve expressed on Google+, Gmail and YouTube. The search engine already collects data about your interests and populates ads based on what they think you will be more likely to click on. This is something you can look at and change yourself in the Ads Preferences Manager.

I had to look. Because my name is gender-neutral, I often get draft notices in the mail and pitches from PR professionals incorrectly addressed to “Mr. Devon Glenn.”  So I wasn’t too surprised when Google had classified me as a male aged 25-34 in my Ad Preferences section. But I was surprised to find out why. “Based on the websites you’ve visited,” wrote Google, “We think you’re interested in topics that mostly interest men.”

What? According to Google, I search most often for business news, record labels, marketing services, restaurants, weddings, and casual games – things that are apparently more interesting to men than women. Go figure.  I removed this part of my profile and also saw that I could “opt out” of all the categories at once if I didn’t want personalized ads.

It sounds like the new Google search experience will also affect the regular search results. I would be much happier to whittle down my options with keywords, like “pizza delivery NYC” or “history of pizza” than to wait for the search engine to guess what I want based on my age, gender and my eating habits from two weeks ago. But that’s just me.

This made me curious about what other kinds of privacy options I had. While browsing through the FAQs, I also found some interesting Privacy Controls that might help with this. Google Chrome allows you to browse in “Incognito Mode,” meaning that the websites you visit won’t be recorded in your browsing and download histories and that any cookies created while you are browsing will be deleted as soon as you close the window. I happened to be on Firefox at the time, and discovered that I could also click “Start Private Browsing” in the “Tools” menu for the same purpose.

When Google rolls out its more integrated experience, the data collected will come from Google+, Gmail, and YouTube as well. Right now you can already access Google’s other services from your Gmail account, like your Documents, Calendar, News, and Picasa albums.  Starting in March, if you’re signed in to one account, you’ll be signed in to all the rest.  Some services, like Search, Maps and YouTube, don’t require a sign-in.

I have to admit that I don’t like my Gmail account. When Google starting offering free email accounts with more storage space than Hotmail’s, many of my friends switched over. I stayed because I liked my handle. Years later, I had to set up a Gmail account for work and was irritated to have to either use my middle name or live with a combination of letters and numbers I wouldn’t be able to remember. I have no problem with the email service itself – it’s great – but I have a longer history and a shorter handle on some of my other accounts.