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  • Google’s User Data Empire

    I’ve been holding off on doing this entry for a bit, but with the introduction of SearchWiki their aims are so clear to me, I just can’t hold off anymore. Google’s problems over the past 2 years have been the result of an algorithm overly based on links. They’ve finally hit their wall. With the latest batch of link buying platforms, their options for truly detecting it are dying out. One can call Google many things, but ignorant of the marketplace and SEOs is not one of those things. So they needed a response. Their response? User data. Lots of fucking user data.
    I know I’ve covered a similar topic before(how Google is essentially creating it’s own internet), but I wanted to do one specifically on user data.

    The Basic Layout of the Google User Data Empire

    • Google Adsense – Google adsense has the unique ability to track without fear of repurcussion. Why? Because any data they send back can be used and archived in their eternal battle against click fraud. This means they transmit everything from screen resolution to ability/version of flash(things that arguably have nothing to do with click fraud). Either way, it’s a window they have into millions and millions of hits on the internet daily. It’s targetted towards informational sites though, and not commercial sites(Google’s true interest).
    • Google Analytics – This is Google’s window into non informational sites. It tracks an absolutely obscene amount of user data(actually, more than you can see/use in their analytics panel). Without this, they’d have no window into sale based sites that would give the competition traffic if they ran adsense. Webmasters flock to this tool, not realizing the danger of feeding Google all that information. Here’s a hint: it tracks conversion rates. Now, Google is currently taking anywhere from 2-5x the amount of adsense revenue they’re giving to the website owner, which means if you do PPC you’re more or less at their mercy for how much you’re paying per click. Them knowing how much you’re making per click via their conversion tracking could (in theory) allow them to adjust your PPC expenses up, while still remaining profitable. But once again, the real gold here is the ability to track the users.
    • Google Chrome – Google Chrome is an interesting creation. Google is a public company. That means they cannot create something like chrome without a significant financial reason. The trick is they’re already propping up firefox via $59.5-70 million a year in donations(85% of Firefox’s revenue) to keep them as the default search. $70 million is jack shit to Google, so they definitely wouldn’t create Chrome simply to save on that, and they’re already getting the ad revenue from firefox searches so that itself doesn’t make sense. So why would they create Chrome?
      • Unique Identifier – Chrome generates a unique id whether or not you agree to send your data to Google. If you agree to send it, this ID gets trasmitted. So what does that do? It makes it so they can identify you regardless of where your computer is, and regardless of cookies. It’s truly the perfect information gatherer.
      • [Partially] Closed Source – I’m no open source junkie, but let’s not kid ourselves. The one primary difference between Firefox and Chrome is that Chrome is closed source. It’s based off of Chromium, a BSD licensed piece of software. BSD license means you don’t have to open source your modification on their code(unlike the GPL). This means one has to run a sniffer to see the data Chrome is sending out; you can’t simply open the source code. While initial versions don’t send out an excessive amount of data, I’m willing to bet user adoption will change that.
      • Typing Tracking – I just sniffed a Chrome request(opted in to trasmit data). The page I was going to was complete blank except for a fake 404 error. Magically, it created 2 requests to Google. One was a “google suggest” style query(which means yes, Google suggest is used for tracking). The other was a curious query, as it trasmitted events(used generic names so I dont know what each stood for), a unique ID, and interestingly enough a variable called “rep”, presumably implying a user reputation level. A single type in of a domain created 3 of these “events”. I wonder what they are.
    • Google Checkout – One of a few ways Google is moving to be able to identify real people. That is to say it’s a way to be able to tie an IP and a cookie/username to a real, 100% legit name. This is worth more than most could ever imagine. Not only is that person identified as someone with a credit card, but the billing address itself gives you a region the person is from, and a probable demographic. Also used to tie back to a real identity is the much debated Google Health, which can store medical information on an individual.
    • Google Toolbar – Fantastic for identifying webmasters, the Google toolbar is among the most powerful methods of getting user data. How long do you think it will be before they turn users into unknowing cloaking checkers(click search results, omgz this pagerank request isn’t for the right domain)? Every single webpage you access, private or not, gets sent to Google for their page rank check.
    • Google Android – The one set of data they couldn’t access properly before. Phone habits. Note how agressively they’ve pursued the cell phone market(IPhone anyone?)
    • SearchWiki – Google’s latest addition to let you reorganize the search results. They say the data is used only for the user that changes it. Fun fact? That makes no sense. Google already has bookmarks, and if you are logged in and click “Web History”(and are  opted in) it will show you the searches you’ve made and the results you’ve clicked. So their is absolutely no reason for the creation of this other than to alter search results, and more importantly gauge user’s reactions to commercial vs. informational sites.
    • Other Obvious Sources – Gmail(your contacts, your interests), the actual search results, and many more.

    Google justifies all of this on the idea that a lot of other companies have been gathering this data for some time. But there’s a difference. Those companies only had data from one source at a time. For Google, it’s different. Their specialty is organizing information. They have access to more avenues for userdata than any other company in the history of the world, and the ability to connect every aspect of every person’s life. Log into gmail on android? Congrats, your phone number can now be tied to your IP home IP. Don’t search using Google? Between adsense and analytics, you’ve probably got a 35-50% chance of sending data to Google anyways with every page load. Did you buy something through an ad served by Google? With conversion tracking, they know you bought, and can tie that back to everything else.

    Why I’m Scared as a User
    I’m really beginning to get scared here. Even ignoring Google’s less than benevolent intentions, can anyone imagine a data breach? No company is truly secure. 4 years ago the entire member database of the largest porn network on the planet was available(including passwords) for 1 grand. over 500,000 records. There have been data breaches at pharmaceutical companies, leaking millions customer records, down to the pill they took and when the prescription was up. Government servers get compromised, credit bureaus get compromised. So why would Google be any different?

    Why I’m Scared as a Webmaster
    Google has an interesting issue. They have more userdata than they can allow adwords advertisers to target. This is an absolutely insane amount of information. So they’re left with 3 options.

    1. Enter the CPA Market – With their Google Affiliate Network, this seems like a likely path. Imagine a massive in house program that can get clicks for dirt cheap(remember, Google takes a HUGE cut out of adsense revenue. Surrendering that they can afford conversion rates that would make normal PPCers cringe).
    2. Not Use the Data  – Google is a publically traded company. Their responsibility is to stock holders. So regardless of how warm and fuzzy they act to the internet community at large, this option is not viable. Their privacy policies contradict the filth they spew towards the consumer about how the data will and won’t be used. And guess which one is legally the reality? The privacy policy. They’re using the data folks.
    3. Take Control from Advertisers – They can’t let me target based on all the data they have, so the alternative is to make the decisions for me based on what they think is best. Well, sort of. Remember that Google automatically optimizes not for conversions, but for click through and profit on their end.

    I don’t understand how prominent geeks normally so paranoid over spyware and whatnot can ignore Google. They function on a higher level than any spyware company in history, and do it all by winking at the webmaster community and acting like they’ll look out for us. “Do No Evil” is the motto of a private company. Not a public company. It’s the antithesis of the free market economy. What is good for the consumer is not good for the company, and that is especially true with an advertising company that has access to so much data.

    Until next time,

    PS: Edited the entry to indicate that chrome is partially closed source. Though the open source aspects are chromium for the most part. To clarify, here’s a line from Chrome’s TOS: 10.2 You may not (and you may not permit anyone else to) copy, modify, create a derivative work of, reverse engineer, decompile or otherwise attempt to extract the source code of the Software or any part thereof, unless this is expressly permitted or required by law, or unless you have been specifically told that you may do so by Google, in writing.

    81 Responses to “Google’s User Data Empire”

    1. Serg says:

      Don’t forget FeedBurner / Google Reader.

    2. Beer says:

      You also forgot to mention that gmail allows you to log into AIM via their web interface so they have access to all your contacts also.

    3. Larry Page & Sergey Brin says:

      Thanks for pointing that out–we’re sure to change that. ;)

    4. anon says:

      Very good article. I’ve always been a little paranoid about using gmail and about using google analytics, but this post reminds me that I need to be more systematic about not leaving a data trail.

      In fact, we should be thinking about ways of leaving fake data. Maybe we can figure out a way to beat google at its own game? Maybe create a program that everyone can use that basically combats against this problem.

      What do you think?

    5. ricdes says:

      And they own Orkut. The south american facebook / myspace.

    6. Matthew Berman says:

      excellent post! people are really starting to forget how much data we give google on a daily basis. i think i am most scared of the data they get from analytics.

      but at the same time their data can be used for good as well. example: recently they’ve come up with some cool tools to illustrate where flu epidemics are breaking.

      but as you said, at the end of the day they’re a public company and the dollar is their bottom line. they pretty much have enough data to enter any market they wanted to and dominate.

    7. Mike says:

      Don’t forget their voice data collecting via 1-800-GOOG-411

    8. Matt says:

      I am an SEO and a Libertarian. Google’s power scares the crap out of me.

      Should the U.S. government gain access to that data by force or law they could find out all kinds of things about individuals of this country. The forward trend or our government here, especially the incoming administration, is a larger more powerful government that is anti-individual.

      Great article and big ups for calling the Big G out.

    9. Daniel Wood says:

      Chromium is open source,

    10. admin says:

      @Daniel Wood: Modified it to explain. But Chrome is not open source. Chromium is open source.

    11. Scroogle says:

      One simple technique is put entries in your host file so that
      all non-critical Google domains are blocked (at least the ones your aware of).

      Also flash cookies are an issue which most people aren’t aware of.
      Most cookie managers (including Firefox privacy options) dont remove flash cookies.

    12. CS says:

      i enjoyed this.

      i wonder if google desktop still has the “search across computers” feature?

      and if you want chrome without google try iron by srware.

    13. SEOkevin says:

      Great post. You just got a new reader.

    14. How much Google knows about you? says:

      [...] read just now an excellent post about the ways Google is gathering data about you, about us. And if you

    15. Matt G says:

      Great post.

      Just wanted to mention that if you like the look and features of chrome, there’s another browser with all the phone google crap cut out.

      SRWare Iron


    16. uW says:

      Knowledge is power, absolute power corrupts absolutely – need any more sayings?

      Google is the ultimate example of the system that is largely known as capitalism. Although there is the concern that a lot of us take a proportion of our earnings from the system I still think that gamers will always game, its the end users irrelevant of their input that I worry about, the mass culture to be a user is bad – bad for free thought, open mindedness – but never has its oppisition been so organised and capable of refining its control.

      Two faced google, you cheeky bastard!

    17. Eli says:

      Don’t forget blogger, gtalk, and google desktop :)

      I’ve seen google analytics data being used by blogspot to delete a spammy blog.

      I’m just wondering when google will start saying its “evil” to build a site around an offer then start blurring that line to boost adsense and help introduce their cpa model.

      Their answers for everything are already:
      Want traffic? Use adwords or you’re a spammer.
      Want revenue? Use adsense or you’re a dirty link seller.

    18. James P says:

      I really don’t think Google takes a huge cut out of AdSense. It is rumored to be about 20%… This rings true with me because when I compare the ammount I spend on the content network promoting acai berry to the CPC I get from adsense on acai berry websites the numbers work out about right.

    19. Bartek Krzemień says:

      Great article!

      There are other people (like Aaron Wall) who were posting similar entries – anyone who enjoyed this post should read there as well.

    20. Mark says:

      While I understand the annoyance of having such an unbalanced search market and relying on Google, on a personal level – you are not forced to use any of Google’s innovations.

      Tin hattery to the extreme, although I agree with comment on usually paranoid geeks with spyware/adware vs Google data collection.

    21. SEO-PRO says:

      Great article! It just confirmed my fears!

    22. Things Google stores about us - Irish SEO, Marketing & Webmaster Discussion says:

      [...] Google User Data Empire Google’s User Data Empire : Slightly Shady SEO __________________ Irish Architecture Irish Architecture Jobs [...]

    23. Contempt says:

      Touche sir.

    24. Ian M says:

      AdBlock is one way to help prevent yourself being tracked when not using Google services (or those of any other company for that matter). In addition to the standard ad blocking lists, subscribe to the “EasyPrivacy” list which blocks tracking stuff.

    25. Ryan says:

      Not to mention how Salesforce and Google get closer and closer every day. Can you imagine the day Google buys Salesforce out? Not only will they possess the largest database of websites, the largest database of user information, the largest collection of interaction data, but also the largest collection of lead-funnel data in the world.

      If I told you I could see your customers, and I could see that 90% of your customers also use three other services (triangulation), and there were 1,000 customers of those three sites who aren’t currently using your service, how much would you pay to talk to those people? How about if I also told you that they’d searched for something like your product before?

      How much would you pay for the search terms they used? Or for a list of websites they frequent?

      I’d be willing to bet you’re thinking of a number quote close to your average revenue per lead. But what if I already know that number because you’re using my analytics and lead tracking services?

      And if you want to get really tinfoil-hatty: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/29/BULA13QJ87.DTL&type=tech

      What if I also know how long your customers are likely to live?

    26. Ryan @ Linkbuildr says:

      Awesome points! Google also has their user pages which is tied in via gmail..pretty much a weak mans facebook…but tied in none the less.

    27. kingofsp says:

      Awesome post. Well worth the wait!

    28. Danny Dover says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. I have had similar feelings but never thought of using sniffers on Chrome. Really appreciate the new perspective. I went through each of the privacy policies for every property Google owned and compiled a list of all of the data they admitted to collecting. You can read about it here: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/the-evil-side-of-google-exploring-googles-user-data-collection#list Hope my perspective helps you as well.

    29. Visual Guard for MS SQL Server says:

      You have left the gtalk and the Orkut. Its owned by GOOGLE..

    30. TIW says:

      This is without doubt the best article I’ve read on your website in the past 6 months… and my first comment!

      More of the same please, nothing better than educating the masses and reducing their pwoer – if thats possible.

      SearchWiki is going to make it more difficult, but I would assume you and others are already on the case.

      Does Aaron collect data from his free tools ;-)

    31. WayneDog says:

      Great post. I have been afraid of what big G has been up to for a long time now and it’s only getting more and more scary. Unfortunately, most people are sheep without brains and will keep using and supporting every new way google can come up with to collect more and more user data.

    32. Gab Goldenberg says:

      How long do you think it will be before they turn users into unknowing cloaking checkers(click search results, omgz this pagerank request isn’t for the right domain)


      IMHO, search wiki also serves a secondary purpose – it fragments the search results further so that the only way to guarantee/project a minimum assured ROI is PPC. They’re making the ROI on SEO appear less certain – literally and quite obviously – so that more businesses choose AdWords.

      p.s. You’re running PSAs in your footer Adsense block LOL.

    33. Chad says:

      Yes, Google collects an enormous amount of data, but just think about what AT&T could get with packet sniffing. Some articles I’ve read indicate that up to 75-80% of traffic goes through AT&T at some point. Forget about Google getting their stuff handed over to the feds, they already have it, with AT&T having immunity from handing it over.
      Android has very real issues about what data Google could get. The collection of location data, combined with web history off your PC is very valuable data. Imagine shopping for a car or house. You naturally search the internet looking at dealers, cars, or houses. Google has a pretty good idea of what you are willing to spend, and what you are looking at. You go to a dealership, and the dealer gets your info and buys a profile from Google. They now have access to your web history, and combined with your location data, know what other dealers you have been to, and what pricing information you have looked up. Similarly, you go out and look at houses, and submit an offer. The selling real estate agent bus your Google info, and now knows what other houses you have looked at, possibly revealing how much you’re willing to spend.
      Just imagine the goldmine your banks would have if they bought your Android profile with location data and overlayed that on your transaction history. They now have very real data to sell to marketers about exactly how you shop, where you shop, and how you buy.
      Kept me from buying a G1

    34. OMG More Links! - The Marios Alexandrou Edition | SEO ROI Services says:

      [...] Is Browserank the new PageRank -

    35. admin says:

      @Everyone: Whoa! This got some seriously excellent comments. Thanks everyone. A lot of the stuff here would’ve taken a longgg time to find myself.

    36. JR @ Internet Marketing Do-Follow Blog says:

      Great post, just subscribed!

    37. Link Goodies | SEO Tips Mashup says:

      [...] Slightly Shady SEO looks at Google’s user data empire. [...]

    38. Google’s Mega Huge Collection of User Data by Ryan Stemkoski says:

      [...] Check out this article: http://www.slightlyshadyseo.com/index.php/googles-user-data-empire/ [...]

    39. Blah says:

      Do No Evil != Don’t Be Evil

    40. Dumbass says:

      Google has the same incentives as your bank to keep your information secure. If people stop believing that their information is not being used for malicious purposes (money AND data in the case of banks), they will leave Google as quickly as they came. Google (unlike Microsoft!) has no lock in (IMAP for Gmail, Export for Docs, etc, etc).

      Do you trust your bank? If not, you should always feel free to put your money under your mattress like a survivalist retard. That is basically how you come off as in this post.

    41. Pessimist says:

      While I understand the annoyance of having such an unbalanced search market and relying on Google, on a personal level – you are not forced to use any of Google’s innovations.

      If you are talking about Gmail and web search, you are right. We don’t have to use them, and Yahoo search is just as good.

      But as an user we are tracked no matter what we try. Lots of sites use Adsense and Google Analytics, so Google knows what we do regardless.

    42. Yoko says:

      Out of curiosity … as someone who has a Gmail account, is there any way to delete my data from Google’s databases? Can I cancel my account, and have everything erased? Or is it there to stay as long as Google shall live, regardless of when I choose to close (“delete”) my email account?

    43. NoScript User says:

      Great list!

      One tracking area that you could add to your list is the Google hosted copies of common JavaScript libraries:


      This will allow recording of IP addresses and referrer URLs by Google services, catching websites that don’t otherwise implement Analytics or AdSense. (I would quite like to know what percentages of global website visits are covered by at least one of these three techniques!)

    44. Link Goodies | Mentor SEO says:

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    46. Internet Strategist says:

      Those who are not concerned about the power of Google are incredibly naive. Many have posted proof that Google does evil things (see Bob Cringely’s posts for example). As someone said power corrupts and ultimate power corrupts ultimately.

      Time to wake up. We have phones that can be remotely activated as listening devices, have built-in cameras and thumb print panels that report their location even when turned off (unless the battery is unplugged).

      We have cars that report where you go, where you are, where you MIGHT want to go, and a system that can lock you into your car – and they got people to PAY for these features.

      Employees have reported that AT&T is routing (and probably recording) massive amounts of Internet traffic.

      Only those who have developed critical thinking skills ever question the propaganda we’re been fed since birth (a different version for each country).

      And if that weren’t bad enough, all this is dramatically slowing down the Internet. Exactly what is Google Analytics doing? I switched to Ubuntu and totally Open Source and it won’t load and hangs my PC. Why?

      What we need is an independent Internet free of Corporate control. In the meantime, how about alternatives to anything and everything that has been Google-ized?

    47. Apurva says:


      Does Google Health can eligible in this article or still its at its inmature stage?


    48. [[email protected]]# » Blog Archive » links - 20081130 says:

      [...] Wood Found on Mars Super Sized Fast Food Phobia (this won’t be popular…) The Basic Layout of the Google User Data Empire The future of Linux filesystems 10 Dirty Little Web Development Tricks Unusual Xmas gift Ask HN: [...]

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      [...] XMCP wrote a post this weekend which looks at how Google tracks each of us as we use the net. Last year James Thomas devised a plan to go without using any of Google’s services and was able to turn off their tracking as well. XMCP’s post doesn’t include the mobile point I’ve noted above but does look at some of the elements of tracking. People talk about how worried they are about national ID cards – does Google know more about us than an ID card ever will? I like XMCP’s notes about Google Chrome.Just how much does Google know? Ok for Google to control these many bits of data on each user no matter if they use it or not? Here’s my chart for easy reference: [...]

    51. The End Of Online Anonymity | twitAD - Advertise On Twitter says:

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    52. TigerTom says:

      Said it myself here, over a year ago:


      They have a ‘lock’ on the internet, effectively, and they’re not responsible to the public, just to their shareholders.

      The most amazing thing is their PR. Even Yahoo got sucked in. Now look at it.

    53. I, for one, welcome our new internet overlords. - Tom on HCI says:

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    54. Peter Kasting says:

      More detail about precisely what data Google Chrome does and does not send, and how it relates to the Chromium open source project, is available at:


    55. Mike Oxley says:

      Add to the list Google Admanager which “is a hosted ad management solution that can help you sell, schedule, deliver, and measure all of your directly-sold and network-based inventory.” and allow Google to understand how much youre generating outside of their adsense.

      Oh, and when you consider they can process 1PB of data in 6 hours they probably know what colour underpants Im wearing.

    56. Information Superpower | The Nexus says:

      [...] article by Shady (XMCP) goes through all of the current ‘free’ application and services by Google and gives a [...]

    57. Donace says:

      You got me thinking with this :p

      Popped out a quick article…have a look if you get a sec


    58. Warren says:

      OMG, the aluminum foil is slipping off my head. What will this big bad company do with all my aggregated information? What will happen if we don’t watch them and question their every intent. Buy some stocks and make a profit, FFS!

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    60. Jack D says:

      you are so wrong on so many things, yet sound so confident. a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    61. Update - Links - Love | The Nexus says:

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    63. Google's User Data - DesignersTalk says:

      [...] User Data Bit of tin-hattery but an interesting read : Google’s User Data Empire : Slightly Shady SEO __________________ Linked In :: Last.fm :: Twitter me [...]

    64. Gab Goldenberg says:

      Give me a call, would you? I have an idea for lifting conversions on organic traffic that I need a BH to help test … the interest for you is obviously greater revenues if it works :) .

    65. Cash Volume says:

      Sounds like paranoia to me.

    66. Alex Pooley says:

      So to conclude, buy GOOG ? ;)

    67. David - LA Marketing Firm says:

      I think I hopped on the Google bandwagon a bit before the overall populace did, due to some of their powerful tools and such.

      I have someone who worked for one of the “click fraud detection companies”, who told me that, ‘Google’s “Do No Evil” policy died the day they became a publicly traded company.”

      With that in mind, I think i am going to get off of all google products in the near future. Bye bye Gmail, Google search, and google analytics (which is the only google product i hated with a passion)… Peekaboo Yahoo Search and mail, YPN and maybe a bit from Microsoft to supplement. A hotmail account (first time ever), gatineu, and indextools as soon as Yahoo can release that to the public.

    68. Digerati Marketing » Blogs Worth Reading says:

      [...] before he did, hehe. Again, a no BS approach to effective SEO, whether he’s writing about Google’s User Data Empire, hiding from it or site automation it’s all [...]

    69. Google Search Sucks says:

      Thank you Shady… AWESOME POST

      Now the real question is how do we get the movement going???

      Without a viable competitor people will continue to use Google… and Microhoo doesn’t look like its going to happen.

    70. Google Knows EVERYTHING About You!!! — Google Search Sucks says:

      [...] When someone writes 10 times better it is sometimes easier to just send a link. Google Knows Everything About You – Google Empire [...]

    71. Jabz says:

      I just cancelled my Google-Calendar, Reader, iGoogle, notebook and webmaster tools account. More are to follow when I got more time.

      NetNeutrality is far more important!

      Good Bye Google.

    72. Zany Zoroaster says:

      Good to hear this said, with all the branches of Google in one place. I think “Do No Evil” is absolutely obscene in the context of what goes on at Google, especially their abysmal customer service.

    73. Gabriella says:

      You’ve got some amazing information here. Made me subscribe! I always knew Google had some skeletons they didn’t like airing out. Check this out http://money.cnn.com/2008/12/23/technology/internet_neutrality_lashinsky.fortune/

    74. Andy says:

      I like the idea of swamping them with data. There is only so much data that they can analyse.

    75. GT says:

      This is better than gold.

    76. GT says:

      This is golden.

    77. ReVice says:

      Nice post Shady!

      You never cease to amaze and I would not be surprised if you, yourself were working for the boys at Goog one day.

    78. Paull Hamilton says:

      This is really scary stuff, but it certainly makes you aware of just how much information there is out there. The only thing I can say is that I hope there is no leak from Google or heaven help us all.

    79. Eyes Wide Open says:

      Lest any of you don’t remember..

      The NSA was the initial investor in Google and Matt Cutts is a “former” NSA spook.

      All of this information is ALREADY in the hands of the US gov’t.

    80. Ryan Eagle says:

      Don’t forget Google AdManager – they’re gonna eliminate us MediaBuyers soon. Jeeze.

    81. mine says:

      don’t forget Google Earth’s new version cannot be uninstalled…and other “features”…too much power this company.

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