At 9:25 PM CST tonight I received the following highly surprising email from Google Local Business Center (I have covered the numbers to protect the web site traffic data and subject matter of Google’s apparent privacy victim).
Yes, the email is for November, 2009’s local business results for some business named Boscos. A query of Boscos indicates a number of businesses with that name. Due to the size of the views, it appears to be Boscos , the Restaurant for Beer Lovers with locations in Little Rock, Nashville, Memphis and Johnson City, TN.
The following are the Google Local Business Center data elements the email contained (in case the above photo doesn’t render):
Appeared in Google local search results
Users clicked on this listing
Clicks for more info
Clicks for driving directions
Clicks to your website
My first thought was this was potentially some kind of joke by someone at Google due to the subject matter resolving to beer, which has a long history of pranks in SEO circles. However, a Twitter user, @phillydesign sent a tweet with the following tweet with a link to Tweetpic:
Truly having trouble deciding why I rec’d this Google Local email. Is it spam? Have the googlebots lost it? http://twitpic.com/x0gp2
Thank you Danya! You allowed me to see I wasn’t the only one that received this. That was a big help. We obviously don’t know the scope of this story yet, but I can say it wasn’t just one random email to me due to this tweet. I contemplated the meaning and potential impact of the event. Immediately, my mind raced to the Google CEO Eric Schmidt press conference which I attended with Quentin Hardy back at Search Engine Strategies San Jose 2006, The full transcript of that press conference is located here
Several things stand out to me about that event, most importantly that Eric didn’t seem like he had fully considered the magnitude of the AOL data breach situation and how to answer it. These are the interactions with reporters that led to Eric’s retraction of his earlier statements:
Q: People read the article today about AOL [inadvertently revealing search query data for its users] and say, “Oh my God, Google or whatever is going to give my searches away and everything about me is going to be known.” Can what happened at AOL happen at Google, and what do you say to the searchers out there?
Eric: Well, our number one priority is the trust that our users have and that would be a violation of trust, so the answer is, it won’t happen.
Q: Hi. I just want to follow-up on the AOL [privacy breach. Did you speak to AOL about this?]
Eric: I did not contact them on this because I was busy doing these other things. I’ve been deal mode, unfortunately. So the answer is I did not.
Q: [Follow up question asking his opinion of the eventual outcome of this AOL breach]
Eric: In many ways, it may be positive because we want people to know things. We don’t want people to wandering around saying everything is secure, everything is protected. So I think that the awareness is positive. The specific is obviously bad. So please don’t get my message wrong here. It’s clearly a bad thing. No one disagrees with that, but I think more awareness is good. From a Google perspective, again, this would not happen. I don’t want to criticize AOL, they’re a good partner of ours, and they should answer the specifics. I don’t know enough of the details.
It is awareness, awareness that people know what goes on online, that is a good thing. The fact that people now understand that credit card fraud – again, please don’t take this out of context. This is important. I don’t want to be quoted as saying “this is a good thing.” It’s not a good thing. Awareness of what can happen, that bad things can happen, is a good thing. I hope that’s clear.
Q: [Question regarding press criticism or negative reviews of products]
Eric: Well, again, we get our feedback from our end-users on every search, on every use. So with all due respect to all of us, my opinions, and what you all think – we collectively are not the judge – the user is the judge. So when we bring out a product, or a new service, we look at how end-users respond to it. So the question about AOL, the real answer is, it’s an end-user trust argument. So we will do things that are specific to maintaining or improving end-user trust. And that’s how we’re going to sort all this out. There will always be people who criticize Google and that’s fine. We think the criticism is healthy, we learn from the criticism. It’s all perfectly fine.
Q: [Regarding the AOL privacy breach …] On one side you said it’s a good thing that people understand that’s potential fraud out there. On the other side, it won’t happen here. Now why won’t it happen at Google?
Eric: Hang on. Since we’re all on tape, I retract my previous statement because it was obviously confusing and I apologize. “[Privacy breach is] a bad thing. It’s a bad thing.” How am I doing? “It’s a bad thing.”
What I’ll never forget is his tone when he said that…
This is the latest in a series of controversies regarding Google Local Business Results. If the Google Local Business Results were sent to many people, this could likely be as serious as the AOL data breach.
This all raises alot of fascinating questions with immense magnitude regarding Google’s trust.
1) Why are November, 2009 results being mailed on January 6th, 2010 in the first place? Seems kinda late.
2) Why did I randomly receive Boscos Local Business Listing view report? Why are others apparently receiving random Local Business Center reports that aren’t theirs?
3) What privacy issues does this incident raise?
4) Will Google discontinue the Local Business Results box altogether due to the issues with quality of this data?
5) Has Eric Schmidt broken his commitment which he made on August 6th, 2006 during the above mentioned press conference when he said “Well, our number one priority is the trust that our users have and that would be a violation of trust, so the answer is, it won’t happen.”?
6) What does the apparent lack of controls that may have caused this incident imply about the integrity of the Adwords platform and Google’s relationship with businesses?
7) Did any companies receive a competitor’s apparent local business center results? If so what are the implications?
8.) What effect, if any, will this have on consumer adoption of the new Google phone Nexus One?
9) This event appears to imply a violation of Google’s code of conduct section I, part C (Privacy and Freedom of Expression). What actions might Google’s board of directors take with management team for allowing this to occur?
If you received one of these emails with apparent data, please leave a comment below with the details. As I learn more, I will update this post…I look forward to hearing people’s reactions to this incident.
Update #1 – Mike Blumenthal has a post on this.