Google’s Ways of Monetizing Android — What They Know
As an interesting thought exercise, let’s take a look at how Google can potentially use Android to further drive their other services and make great profit. It’s highly unlikely push ads will ever be used as most users are completely against them, and Google’s own Play Store policies forbid them.
This article doesn’t aim to predict what exactly Google may or may not do, but the potential discussed is technologically within reach. Putting some of the data together as described here won’t be an easy task, but it’s not a wild suggestion either. Without giving spoilers, we’re already seeing relevant technologies being used in existing Google apps and services.
What Google Knows…
Google knows a lot about you, unless you’ve taken drastic measures to make sure it doesn’t (if you’re interested in going that route, Pulser_G2 has written a series of articles that should help you get started). Even if you did, though, we can agree that Google knows a lot about the average user, who makes up the majority of Android users.
It’s also worth noting that most of these options either require the user to opt-in, or let the user know what’s happening. Google also recently launched a privacy and security hub to let users easily know about the information that’s being collected, and offer a portal from which to review their privacy settings.
That being said, the opt-in dialog may not be adamantly clear about what information is being collected to some users. With all that in mind: what exactly does Google know?
- Where you go: when you open Google Maps for the first time, a dialog asks you to enable location reporting and location history in order to use the app and have it know where you are. You can later disable the latter (or both), but we’re going to make one assumption throughout this article, and it seems like a safe assumption: most users won’t. This allows Google to provide you with contextual information such as commute durations and traffic on routes you commonly take. If you’re curious, you can check your location history here.
- What you search for and the results you click on: Google Web History is enabled by default and stores your search history. Additionally, links you click from Google Search (and some other Google websites/applications, such as Hangouts or the Google Play Store) will go through Google’s servers first, essentially tracking your clicks. The latter can’t be circumvented without using browser add-ons, an Xposed module or app.
- Websites you visit: in addition to the above, if you’re using Chrome and have Chrome Sync enabled, your web history will be stored by Google. This information is used to give you smarter results (for example, searching for “Python” will give you results related to the scripting language instead of the snake depending on your previous search and web history). You can review your web history and more here.
- Your interests: location related habits (via Maps and location services), videos and movies you like (YouTube, Google Play Movies), books you read (Google Play Books), music you listen to (Google Play Music), news you’re interested in (Newsstand), applications you use and love (installed apps and ratings), websites and subscriptions (from the emails you receive on Gmail and websites that sign-in using your Google+ account), travels and purchases (via Gmail) and more. Search/web history and click tracking can also provide more information about the above, as well as Google+ (potentially for social activities as well) depending on whether you use that or not.
- Your contacts: if you use Google Contacts Sync or Hangouts, they’re synced to Google’s servers (as you probably guessed from the name). You can view and manage those from the Google Contacts website, by the way.
- Things you photograph: Google Photos‘ image recognition technology is still far from perfect, but it’s interesting to see where it’s headed. Photographs’ contents can be more accurately recognized in the future, further identifying users’ interests. Geotagging already allows associating an image with the location where it was taken from.
- Your appointments, birthdays and more: Google Calendar and Google Keep are great tools, and all that information is synced to Google’s servers as well, allowing you to access it from multiple devices.
- Various information from non-Google apps: Play Services and the upcoming Now on Tap will also open up some new and interesting possibilities.
It’s also important to remember just how many people most of this affects, and how much information this translates to. If you recall the recent EU antitrust lawsuit against Google, one of the issues is that Google dominates web searches in Europe, with a hold of 90% of users. Ignoring web services, Android alone shipped over a billion devices in 2014. Google apps come pre-installed on most of them too, possibly giving Google a much wider reach than other popular services such as Facebook, even though it may seem like the other way around if you only consider what you manually share (comments you personally write).
… and How This Information Can Be Used
Well, it’s clear Google can know quite a bit about the average user… but how can this information be used?
Mind-boggling things can be done using this information — (potentially) terrible, yes, but mind-boggling!
In clever, possibly scary and interesting ways, of course! Google is (or was?) primarily an advertising company, so sponsored results and targeted advertising are two obvious methods. Sponsored results can be shown in Google Search for queries you search for, in YouTube as sponsored channels or in the Play Store for app recommendations. It could even be used to show you sponsored locations in Google Maps first when navigating, or when zoomed out further than usual.
Targeted advertising has an even broader reach: of course, it can be used on Google’s apps and services (text ads in Google Search or Gmail, video ads before playing the video you want on YouTube, or audio ads when listening to the radio on Play Music). What’s more interesting is that it can be used on pretty much any website as well, as long as that website uses Google AdSense.
This isn’t new, though. Sponsored results and targeted advertising were around long before Android, but Android’s popularity makes them much more powerful. While many of Google’s services aren’t exclusive to Android, the popularity of many of them can certainly be attributed in part to the operating system’s success. The wealth of information provided by these services is also amplified when installed on a mobile device you carry around and use for pretty much everything. This allows for deep integration between the various services and the advertisements solutions.
Advertisements no longer have to be based on out-of-context web searches or on your general location — they can now be specifically tailored to you based on your activities, habits and interests. What’s more, a whole network can be built connecting you and all your friends, analyzing potential interests and social activities or events you may perform as a group.
- Took some photos with friends and of nature, and location history shows you next to some of your friends? You’re probably into hiking or exploring nature — but wait! Did Google Photos just recognize a rifle in that photo? Seems like you’re hunting after all! — and advertise you products that are relevant to your immediate lifestyle: rifles you may be interested in, bird carriers or ammunition.
- What’s happening around you? If you live near or often commute to a particular city where a festival is being held, the organizers can target you directly.
- Birthdays coming up? Actually useful birthday gifts may be suggested — gift ideas even you may not be able to come up with, because Google may know your friend better than you do.
- Visit some coffee shop frequently? Well, did you hear about the latest and exciting offers that’ll allow you to save up to 15% on your morning coffee?! Alternatively, competitors can also try to target you with more appealing offers.
- Going on a trip to Spain? Here are some neat tours, original gift shops, and other great ideas!
- Do you often research Samsung devices, coupled with some past Samsung purchases? Well, did you hear about the latest flagships and exclusive carrier deals you can take advantage of?
… and much more. The enormous amount of information, coupled with a huge network combining not only your own info, but also your friends’, can be used for scary-accurate targeted advertising.
Mind-boggling things can be done using this information — (potentially) terrible, yes, but mind-boggling! Advertisements may become appealing and actually useful to some (as opposed to spam), but that’s also where privacy concerns become more apparent. You can control many of the information you personally offer, but what about information offered by third-party apps and websites (via Play Services, Now on Tap, Google+ sign-in) or even your friends?
Editor’s Note: this article was edited on February 13, 2018 to update the link to the Firefox Clean Links add-on. Since Firefox is no longer supporting add-ons, we have changed the link to a page listing WebExtension alternatives.