How Google Tracks Your Personal Information

Google marketers like me are closing the gap between your offline and online worlds—and crushing your soul in the process.

How Google Tracks Your Personal Information
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When lazy journalists are pessimistic about Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, they say stuff like: “Even Orwell couldn’t have predicted that we’d willingly bring Big Brother into our own homes.”

What they fail to mention is our willingness to exchange privacy for convenience didn’t start with the advent of virtual assistants. It started in the early 2000s when people—in return for having access to Google products and seeing more relevant ads—allowed Google to have all their data.

Today, Google provides marketers like me with so much of your personal data that we can infer more about you from it than from any camera or microphone.

There have never been more opportunities for marketers like me to exploit your data. Today, 40,000 Google search queries are conducted every second. That’s 3.5 billion searches per day, 1.2 trillion searches per year.

When you search on Google, your query travels to a data center, where up to 1,000 computers work together to retrieve the results and send them back to you. This whole process usually happens in less than one-fifth of a second.

Most people don’t realize that while this is going on, an even faster and more mysterious process is happening behind the scenes: An auction is taking place.

For as long as you’ve been using Google, Google has been building a “citizen profile” on you.
Every internet search contains keywords, and the keywords you just entered into Google are fought over by advertisers. Each advertiser who offers a product related to your keywords wants its ad to be seen and clicked.

Then, like cartoon toys scrambling to get back in the right order before their owner throws on the light, the ads finalize their positions before your customized results page loads on your screen.

Generally, your first four search results—what you see before having to scroll down—are all paid advertisements. If you didn’t know this, you’re not alone. More than 50 percent of people between the ages of 18–34 can’t differentiate between an ad and an organic result on Google. For those over 35, that percentage grows proportionally higher. (To maximize this percentage, Google is always testing to find ad visuals that blend in best with organic results.)

Once you click on an ad, your information passes through to search engine marketers, where it’s forever stored in an AdWords account, never to be erased.

In case you were starting to feel a semblance of happiness, what with the holidays around the corner, here is a complete checklist of everything Google knows about you—thereby all the ways you’re tracked—as of December 2018:

  • Your age
  • Your income
  • Your gender
  • Your parental status
  • Your relationship status
  • Your browsing history (long-term and short-term)
  • Your device (phone, tablet, desktop, TV)
  • Your physical location
  • The age of your child (toddler, infant, etc.)
  • How well you did in high school
  • The degree you hold
  • The time (of day) of your Google usage
  • The language you speak
  • Whether you’ve just had a major life event
  • Your home ownership status
  • Your mobile carrier
  • The exact words you enter into Google search
  • The context and topics of the websites you visit
  • The products you buy
  • The products you have almost bought
  • Your Wi-Fi type
  • Your proximity to a cell tower
  • Your app installation history
  • The amount of time you spend on certain apps
  • Your operating system
  • The contents of your email
  • The time you spend on certain websites
  • Whether you’re moving (e.g., into a new home)
  • Whether you’re moving (e.g., walking or on a train)

For as long as you’ve been using Google, Google has been building a “citizen profile” on you. This profile contains:

  • Your voice search history
  • Every Google search you’ve ever made
  • Every ad you’ve ever seen or clicked on
  • Every place you’ve been in the last year
  • Every image you’ve ever saved
  • Every email you’ve ever sent

In 2019, we will be coming close to realizing the Holy Grail of search engine marketing: multidevice attribution. When this tech is realized, ads will follow searchers seamlessly—not only across channels (e.g., social, organic, and email) but across devices (e.g., from mobile to tablet to laptop to TV to desktop).

Depending on your brand loyalty, for example, your TV will emit a hyper-frequency during certain commercials. Undetectable by your obsolete human ear, this signal can only be picked up by a nearby cell phone. If a Nike commercial plays on your TV, and then you pick up your phone and Google “Nike shoes,” your conversion path has been linked from TV to phone. Nice.

Despite the surveillance bleeding into nearly every aspect of our lives, there’s little information available to the public about what’s really going on.
Marketers already know if you’re a daily commuter. And they show you ads for products that daily commuters would be interested in buying, like headphones, pre-worn leather laptop bags, and handkerchiefs to hoarsely sob into. How do marketers know you’re a commuter? Easy: The frequency your cell phone pings passing cell towers. If the pings occur close together, a marketer can conclude that you’re standing in an object moving at a great rate of speed, with infrequent interruptions—also known as a train. (If it’s the Long Island Rail Road you’re riding, interruptions might be frequent. Heh.)

Search for a product on your phone and then physically walk into a store. Do that, in that order, and chances are Google used your phone’s GPS data to connect your ad click and your in-store purchase.

In order to provide marketers with further detail about your in-store (offline) purchases, Google has acquired (paid millions for) Mastercard credit card data. The company has acknowledged it has access to about 70 percent of U.S. credit and debit card sales through “third-party partnerships.” We will look back on this number and consider it quaint.

Back in December 2008, Hal Roberts, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, spoke about Google Ads as a form of “gray surveillance ^(” Roberts described Google as “a system of collective intelligence” that, along with marketers, hoarded and exploited your data.

But unlike other forms of surveillance, Google couldn’t kill you with it or throw you in jail.

Google Ads was gray surveillance because the exploitation, Roberts said, was hard to detect on the individual level. But, he said, it was already playing “a central role in the creation of social discourse online.” And 10 years later, the exploitation on Google Ads is even harder to detect. Despite the surveillance bleeding into nearly every aspect of our lives, there’s little information available to the public about what’s really going on.

In 2019, I’d like to change that.

People tell Google things they confess nowhere else — not to their spouses, doctors, or shrinks.
Through this series, I will reveal everything I know about the dark side of search engine marketing. I will explain, in everyday language, how Google and Google Ads work “under the hood” to track your data.

Then I will expose, from an insider’s perspective, what the vast majority of the public doesn’t know: how Google Ads is abused by search engine marketers and how people are essentially bought and sold through this platform. I will cover what Google has tried to do to fix Google Ads. Finally, I will provide readers with all the steps they need to protect themselves from exploitation on Google—including how to take back control of their data from insidious advertisers and those search engine marketers who rig the game.

Today, people tell Google things they confess nowhere else—not to their spouses, doctors, or shrinks. But Google users would not be so forthright with the search engine if they understood how far down this rabbit hole goes. With the insider information I will provide, I hope readers can return to a place where Google is not the only option available to tell their fears, regrets, hopes, and dreams.

By the end of this series, readers will be equipped with the knowledge to rethink their relationship with Google. And if some readers decide that Google is still their search engine of choice, they’ll be able to use the system, instead of the other way around.

Today, 3 out of 4 smartphone owners turn to Google first to address their immediate needs.

 smartphone owners

As a result, Google marketers ^( me must survive on our ability to play on your impatience and impulsiveness when you’re using a mobile device.

We must be there to serve you an ad in your Micro Moment—that is, the second you decide to use your phone to alleviate the discomfort of not having it now.

“It” can take the form of a last-minute sale, directions to a soon-closing store, or info about a fast-filling class.

As Google plainly phrases it, Micro Moments are your “intent-rich moments when decisions are made, and preferences shaped.” But this belies what Google can’t say: your need-it-now mentality usually occasions uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and fear.

When you are shopping (for anything, not just a product) in this mindset, your restraint is clouded by emotion. Your immediate transactional, navigational, or informational “need” gets conflated with a desire for your bad feelings to go away.

In reality, Google’s goal (thereby our goal) is to separate you from as much of your money as possible every time you aren’t thinking clearly—through ads.

These Micro Moments are so important to Google’s bottom line, that since a May 2018 keynote, Google teaches us, marketers, how to best leverage them against you—by serving the ad best suited for your flavor of impulse, and how to be there for each of those impulses.

In a perfect world, marketers would be trained to help you use Google well when you are of the impressionable mind. Instead, we’re taught to exploit the befuddlement that occasions “convenience on a timer.”

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have Micro Moments about 150 times per day. You will see ads during most of them. These ads speak to what you seek, play on the emotions that are unlike you, and fit your age, income, gender, location, browsing history (and all the other targeting methods I outlined in Part One).

Marketers who can’t “be there” with ads for your ephemeral distress die a quick death.

Desperation in consumerism is nothing new. Consumerism relies on it. But today, the degree of targetable desperation with ads is unprecedented.

Micro Moments are a very recent phenomenon. They have only been made possible in the last few years because:

The number of cell phones in consumers’ hands has hit critical mass

  • Our relationships with our phones have changed
  • Our relationship with Google has changed
  • Here’s a basic example of a Micro Moment that any marketer would kill for: Think of when you, the consumer, are standing in a shoe store, and that shoe store is about to close in fifteen minutes.

You know for a fact the store has the new Air Max you’ve had your eyes on. But you’re not so sure about the reviews on these new kicks. You’re going to be dropping a couple of hundred bucks, so you definitely want to confirm the reviews are good before you buy.

But now you can’t find a salesperson to ask about the sneakers. More likely there’s one standing right by you, but you trust what your phone has to say over what they do (we’re all guilty of this).

“Dear shoppers,” the intercom says, “we’ll be closing in five minutes. Please bring your final purchases up to the register.”

In a moment of desperation, you turn to Google. Your search for “Nike Air Max reviews. ^(” You hit enter. The search engine results from page loads, and our ads get in their positions.

As Google thinks, the switches are flipping inside the AdWords account of every marketer who is targeting your physical location, your query (“Nike Air Max reviews”), your age, your gender, your income, and so on.

Savvy marketers who are a match will bid up aggressively in a battle for the #1 result position on your phone (the top 2 positions on mobile are coveted because they’re all that matter; the vast majority of mobile users don’t scroll down on the search results page).

The ads load.

“We’re closing,” the salesman says.
You ignore him, again (poor guy).

You’re about to click the ad to read the review it promises to show you, but at the very last moment, your eye catches the price in the ad copy: The Air Max is listed for $25 cheaper than in the store!

That’s it…You’ve made up your mind. You have converted. You don’t make eye contact. You make directly for the exit.

You leave the store, sit in your idling car, and buy the sneakers through the ad.

A marketer, somewhere in the world, has just won the battle for your Micro Moment. For that win, they are awarded your money, as well as another trophy, which is more important: your conversion.

A +1 accrues in that marketer’s AdWords ledger. Forever, she will be able to look back at this very Moment to see the levers that delivered your sale and tweak them as needed to ensure her client’s ad is in the #1 position in any of your future Micro Moments.

Micro Moments are leveraged by marketers on behalf of advertisers (in the previous example that would be Nike) in nearly every industry, whether it’s in B2C (business to consumer) or B2B (business to business). Whether the product the ad is selling is a sneaker, a loan, a bail bond, a whitepaper download, or a free eBook—it doesn’t matter.

As long as there’s an action the marketer wishes you to take (e.g. “a conversion goal”), there will always be a correlating Moment of your desperation to be exploited.

Sometimes the desperation we are leveraging against you in your Micro Moment happens organically, like in the shoe store example.

Sometimes it happens inorganically, the urgency manufactured by us. Ads with countdowns, and bogus “flash” sale ads are some examples of how we create FOMO that plays on your fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

And then there are industries whose very services rely on the urgency inherent in Micro Moments~the mobile device as a panacea.

One of these industries is locksmiths, who, for years, abused Google ads to exploit people when they were locked out of their homes.

A successful marketer, advertising on behalf of a locksmith client, knows to skew their bids up for females on mobile devices who are searching online for help(!) after standard business hours.

These women who are locked out of their homes, marketers know, are often very tired, may have their children with them, and might not have anywhere else to go (and thus are afraid of having to spend the night on the street).

In other words, these are women who are willing to do anything to alleviate their anguish, no matter the cost.

After the Google searcher places a call to the locksmith through the ad, the offending advertiser will sell the call out to an offshore center, while the searcher waits for help.

When help does arrive, it comes at ten times the price promised in the marketer’s ad. And often scammers aren’t shy about using intimidation to demand full payment on the spot.

(In one common practice, the imposter locksmith drills the lock and won’t let the Google searcher into her house until she pays up.)

Advanced marketers know it’s not enough to simply be there in each of your need-it-now moments when it’s something tangible you seek.

Because sometimes what you seek is immaterial, but no less exploitable.

Marketers who rise to the top in a world of constant Micro Moments understand that your desire to buy, go, or do is not the only reason you turn to your phone in a state of urgency.

Today’s average consumer spends 4.7 hours per day on their phone. And I’d wager most of that time is not spent with the intent of buying a product before a sale ends, or getting to the mall before it closes, or signing up for a degree program.

A chunk of the time you spend on your phone is, of course, during stretches of boredom—when you’re in the bathroom; or while your spouse is telling you about their day; or when you’re driving on a side street.

(A successful manipulator of Micro Moments is not as interested in serving you ads when you’re bored—when you have little intent and are not led by emotion.)

Rather, we want to serve you ads during another form of downtime when you are clouded by emotion: in your Moments of social awkwardness.

And we humans are uncomfortable in social settings many, many times per day. In the elevator. In line at Starbucks. When a stranger sits across from us on the train. When a co-worker inquires about our weekend.

There is no adult under 40 who doesn’t understand the unique sensation in the guts that occasions these modern encounters, or how insane it feels to get your coffee, sit down at a table and just sit there with no distractions.

When you are in the market for no product save the alleviation of discomfort, the phone is still your salve.

You don’t even have to open Google to be exploited when your guard is confused during anxious Moments—if you just browse the web, Gmail, or YouTube, you will be served a Google ad.

Whether you click it or not, you are being impressed, counted as a View-through, entered into a conversion path that will culminate days and clicks later.

There’s an ad for every variety and instance of your relief-seeking—all of them hosted across channels through Google. The targeting methods used to convert you at your lowest are informed by Google and wielded, often irresponsibly, by marketers.

Google keeps us informed of the best practices.