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With Google+ rocketing to millions of users in record time, many people wonder whether the claims are true: is Google+ really that much better at defending your privacy than Facebook?

Facebook’s rocky history with fluctuating privacy settings and a memorable, scummy, mud-slinging attempt to smear Google make it easy to jump to conclusions, warranted or not. Here’s what you need to know.

In his July 21 Hot Tips article (paid content), Chris Murray talked about the ascendancy of Google+ and the way it’s come to rival Facebook — even while it’s still in beta testing. But the hottest topic in the Google+ vs. Facebook face-off remains privacy. Some reviewers seem to take Google+ privacy superiority as a given. Although I use (and actually like) Google+, I’m not at all convinced it’s better than Facebook at privacy protection. If privacy concerns you — and it should — the facts may sway you to one or the other… or neither.

Not so coincidentally, this issue of Windows Secrets Newsletter marks the inauguration of a new forum on the WS Lounge. We’re starting an entirely new forum devoted to social networking — Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, MySpace, for sure — but also Habbo, Qzone, Vkontakte, Bebo, Friendster, hi5, and Orkut. If you have a social-networking question, drop by the site and let’s see whether we can come up with some answers.


No matter what they say, it’s all about money

“Google makes more from advertising than all the nation’s newspapers combined.” — James Gleick article, “How Google dominates us,” New York Review of Books.

Everybody loves a get-rich-quick story, with brash young heroes and mountains of cash.
In Google’s case, it’s the story of Stanford grad students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who started with the clever idea of ranking Web pages (PageRank). They then added an even cleverer idea for matching people with advertisements. Eventually, they iced the multibillion-dollar cake by figuring out how to sell the ads in a semisecret, perpetual auction (Ad Words). The result? Thirty-two billion dollars in advertising revenue within the past year. Ads represent 97 percent of Google’s revenue.

Advertisers bid on specific words or phrases. Google tries its best to show ads to people who are likely to click on them. If someone clicks on a link and goes to the advertiser’s page, Google bills the advertiser. You probably knew that. But you might not know how much it costs for one click.

Right now, if an advertiser bids on the AdWord phrase auto insurance price quotes and someone clicks on a Google-generated link to the advertiser’s site, the advertiser pays U.S. $54.91. For one click. No, that isn’t a typo. Bid on the phrase consolidate graduate student loans, get a click, and it’ll cost $44.28. Alcohol rehab center runs $33.59. Cord blood bank goes for $27.80. WordStream has an excellent quick overview of the way Google AdWords works, listing the going rate for top phrases.

Now you understand the motivation. Google scans everything — your Google+ entries, sure, but also the contents of all your inbound and outbound Gmail messages, your Google search history, everything it can put together — in the single-minded pursuit of an ad that will draw your click. (The leaked Microsoft internal video called “Gmail Man,” posted on YouTube, takes Google to task for scanning mail — but fails to mention that Microsoft scans Hotmail as well. But Microsoft is looking for spam and performing spell checks, not scanning to generate ads — yet.)

In some cases, Google can match the information to you, personally. In other cases, it has to make do with your IP address, which can change.

In a Gmail information video (site), Google assures everyone that it doesn’t sell personally identifiable data, but it does sell aggregate data. And, according to a CNET article, it’s working on a data-exchange service to help website owners sell data about their specific users to potential advertisers. Eroding your privacy is worth money to all sorts of people.

The Facebook get-rich-quick story starts at Harvard with Mark Zuckerberg and a cast of characters immortalized (accurately or not) in the recent movie, “The Social Network.” Facebook, being a privately held company, doesn’t divulge much about its financial situation, but a story in The Wall Street Journal quotes a company insider stating that Facebook will hit $2 billion in sales this year. Others estimate Facebook’s 2011 ad revenue at closer to $4 billion.

Unlike Google, Facebook draws an estimated 60 percent of its revenue from small advertisers, according to an AdAge report. Unlike Google, Facebook ads don’t appear within the context of a search. There are no AdWords, and clicks don’t cost $50 each. On the other hand, Facebook has direct access to a mountain of detailed demographics — all the data you’ve entered into your profile — and there’s no question who you are when you’re using Facebook (there’s no IP-address ambiguity). Facebook also has the inside info on all those Like buttons you’ve clicked, both on and off the Facebook site. More than 10,000 websites add a Like button every day.

With huge sums of money chasing enormous databases, and users demanding some level of personal privacy, Facebook and Google have lots of incentive to convince you that each one’s own privacy policies are better than the other’s. But when it’s mostly about money, the chances are high that neither is as concerned as you are about the consequences of posting embarrassing pictures to the wrong Google+ circle or embarrassing anecdotes accidentally ending up on millions of Facebook walls.

The supremacy of Google+ Circles — real or imagined?

The principal privacy argument du jour revolves around Google+ Circles. Google+ is built around circles — defined groups of contacts that make it easy to limit who sees your posts. Scott Mace covered this in detail in his July 6 Perimeter Scan article. With Google Circles, it’s easy to post pictures of the kids for the rest of the family to admire, while sparing coworkers the schmaltz. It’s also easy to replicate Facebook-style broadcast posts that go out to everybody — family, friends, collaborators, and co-conspirators — as well as Twitter-like blasts that emanate to anyone who’s asked to follow. In other words, Circles improves privacy by restricting access.

Facebook’s analogous feature is Facebook Groups, which also limits access to posts — but with a distinctly different purpose and in a far less accessible way. If you’ve never used Facebook Groups, there’s a reason why: they’re stuck on the left side of the screen, as you can see in Figure 1, and disappear when you click on your profile. While circles are well integrated into Google+, Facebook’s groups feel like they’re bolted on as an afterthought.

W20110804 TS FBGroups Privacy smackdown: Facebook versus Google+
Facebook’s groups sit on the left side of the Facebook screen.

You can start your own groups and control who joins a group, or you can leave it open for anyone to join. Facebook Groups has one big advantage over Google+ Circles: anyone in the group can post to the group, with the post being visible to everyone else in the group.

Not so Google+ Circles. Each circle you create belongs only to you. You can post a message visible to one or more circles, and responses to that post are visible to other members of the circle. But people in the circle can’t originate a post. They can’t even see who else is in the circle. You can’t even send a copy of a circle to someone else.

Every time you add a friend in Google+, you’re prompted to assign him or her to a circle or circles. It’s click-and-drag easy. Every time you post an entry, you’re asked which circle or circles you want to receive the entry.

By contrast, adding someone to a Facebook group involves opening up the group and, in some cases, typing a user ID.

Bottom line: Google+ Circles makes it much easier to limit who sees what you post. In that respect, it minimizes your chances of broadcasting something embarrassing. But it doesn’t help a bit if you’re concerned about privacy in general — if you’re worried about adding another bit of advertising bait to Google’s pile.

Don’t ask which is better — ask which is worse

The way I figure it, with Web-based apps, unique features such as Google+ Circles have a half-life of about three months. I bet Facebook comes up with a Circles work-alike within the next six months, if not sooner. It took Facebook less than a month to come up with a feature that competes with Google+’s group video-chat feature, Hangouts. Granted, the Facebook app doesn’t come close to Google’s (as detailed in a TechCrunch story), but I bet within six months the features will look astonishingly similar.

On the flip side, Facebook’s new facial-recognition technology will no doubt show up in Google+ soon, eroding our privacy that much further.

Don’t expect any change in the corporate culture of either company. Both Facebook and Google have trampled their customers’ privacy innumerable times. For Facebook, it seems to date back to those early days in that Harvard dorm room, as reported in a Business Insider story. Google’s privacy infractions defy shortlisting: from Street View snapping pics of dirty laundry (The Sunday Times), to swiped Wi-Fi transmissions (The Register), to Google Buzz’s leaks of private contact information (InformationWeek), Google’s privacy problems have kept a legion of attorneys employed in a dozen countries.

Both companies want you to believe that your data’s safe with them. Both want you to believe that the other plays fast and loose with your private information. It’s a nasty rivalry. Earlier this year, Facebook infamously hired a PR company (Los Angeles Times article) to sling mud at Google.

Which one’s worse? It’s probably a toss-up. Based on their demonstrated histories to date, I don’t trust either organization.

Taking the social-media bull by the horns

With all that said, I am hooked on social media. Social networks have become part of my life, and I don’t see any reasonable way to back out now.

I’ll continue to use Google+ for posts destined for specific groups. But I’m going to lock down my privacy settings (YouTube how-to video) and double-check all of my circles.

I’ll use Facebook to keep friends and family posted. But I’m going to follow Scott Mace’s advice to restrict access to my Facebook account, then disable automatic face recognition (YouTube video).

And when I’m not specifically logged on to Facebook or any of the Google sites, I’m going to use a VPN to minimize my footprint with search engines and sites that might connect to a data-exchange service (which will then sell my private information when it becomes sufficiently lucrative). See my Nov. 4, 2010, Top Story for more on VPNs.

Using social networking has both benefits and costs. Make sure you understand the consequences of what you’re doing — as well as the overwhelming pecuniary motives driving the industry.
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