Google is trying to connect the dots.
It has grown from a free utility, the thing that makes the web useful, into a digital ecosystem of Gmail, Docs, YouTube, Google+ and software that powers smartphones. Now it intends to bring order to this vast and sometimes chaotic network. And though Google argues that the move benefits consumers, it's clear that it's also a positive for advertisers.
Last week, Google announced that 60 of its 70 privacy policies will be merged into one on March 1. That essentially means that a signed-in user is a known quantity across the Google universe. (Exceptions include Google Wallet, which is subject to financial-services regulation and can't be folded into an overall policy, and the Chrome OS.)
This is a massive shift for Google. It has been trying to standardize the user experience across all its services and to unite the data they generate to create what will certainly be one of the biggest databases of human activity and interests ever created.
CEO Larry Page's vision of a unified platform for the G-life is also a change for consumers, who are coming to know a Google that is not just search but more of a platform they opt into, such as Apple or Facebook. And it will offer marketers a truer understanding of who they're targeting.
"When you opt in to Apple's terms and conditions, your unspoken agreement is you are going to share information and in exchange get these elegant experiences," said Chris Copeland, search CEO at Group M. "I think Google wants a similar contract with its users. The problem for Google is its coming on to that kind of contract after-the-fact."
As an aggregator of human behavior on the web, Google is unparalleled. But because it has never asked people to sign up for anything (save for Gmail), it does not have the personal information that 800 million users have already given Facebook. Indeed, last week the limits of Google's insights into its users were on full display when it encouraged people to look at profiles it had assembled anonymously.
Take us for example. Google thought Cotton Delo was between the ages of 25 and 34, male and a sci-fi fan (first one correct; the last two not). Google guessed Michael Learmonth to be 35-44 (true) and into music and audio and apparel (not so true).
Those kinds of inaccuracies show the limits of anonymous tracking and are a reason Google+, the social network launched last June, is so important -- even if it's never used for communication in the manner of Facebook. It already has 90 million accounts, profiles that give Google the ID layer it has lacked.
With Google's size and pervasiveness, a change of this scale is bound to be scrutinized. A bipartisan group of eight members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Mr. Page last week, expressing concern about users' abilities to opt out of data collection and asking for clarification about how Google stores information and whether there are protections in place for children and teenagers.
The profile data Google showed -- the result of its anonymous cookie -- was remarkable mostly for its banality. But the company is shooting for an always logged-in user.
"In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience," Alma Whitten, Google director of privacy, product and engineering, wrote in a blog post. (YouTube and Gmail data won't inform Google's anonymous cookie, which will still be tied to anonymous browser activity.)
It also creates more raw material for Google's sole business model: advertising. Marketers could tap into YouTube browsing histories when targeting search ads on Google.com, for example, or recommend golfing-instruction videos to a signed-in YouTube user who's recently searched for golf on Google.com. Better recommendations leading users to more-relevant content will presumably keep them inside the Google ecosystem longer and potentially help Google begin to catch up to Facebook in terms of time spent lingering on their respective sites.
The impact could be felt shortly after the March 1 effective date via bumps in response rates in search and YouTube ads that have been targeted better, according to Eric Wheeler, CEO of 33Across, a social-targeting company.
And, some think, to users -- if it can pass muster with Washington and privacy hawks.
"People should be demanding this from their service providers, not questioning it," said former Google exec Penry Price, who is now president at Media6Degrees. "It's called a smartphone because we, as consumers, want the device to be smart about us and our lives. The privacy outcry is showing they really want dumbphones."