They scan your email, looking for clues about your interests. They send you suspicious ads for the Luxor and travel deals on United Airlines after a business partner emails you about an upcoming Las Vegas trip. Those little text ads next to your messages? They change constantly, and they're getting more and more prescient.
Sound like some kind of strange hack?
Instead, this is a daily ritual for Gmail users who have consented to let Google scan their emails for salient data to target them with ads. Many companies have decided to put up with the privacy invasion. But a few have cried foul, switching to the greener pastures of Outlook.com.
Or have they?
I decided to do an unscientific survey of about a dozen companies willing to speak out on the issue. I found a few that have certainly switched. They say Microsoft's Scroogled.com campaign, which blasts Google's message-scanning practices, convinced them.
Christy Grimste, who runs the teach abroad company Educators Overseas, says she switched to Outlook.com because of the aggressive ads. She also didn't like Gmail's new layout and format, either--something Google upgraded in the last year. "I didn't like anything about it anymore so I switched to Outlook," she says.
Microsoft claims 60 million people have started using Outlook.com since last summer. The company touts features like Word integration, a clean interface, and spam protection. And, it points out that Outlook.com does not scan message text or subject lines.
"Unlike Gmail, no Microsoft email service, including Outlook.com, Hotmail, and Office 365, looks at the contents of emails for the purpose of showing ads. Microsoft does not use the content of our customers' private communications and documents to target advertising," Jessie Wong, a Microsoft Outlook.com spokesperson, told me.
Even so, most of the companies I contacted said they were sticking with Google.
"I love the fast ability to search," says Amy Baxter, the CEO of MMJ Labs, a company that makes the Buzzy4Shots medical device. "I love that so much of what I need comes up at lightning speed: the search function saves me hours since I can customize it easily. I love Google Chat because it keeps my company connected rapidly."
"As a company that does nearly everything using Google products, it would be almost impossible to switch to Microsoft even if we wanted to, which we don't," adds Flynn Zaiger, the CEO of digital marketing agency Online Optimism. "We use Google Calendar for our Calendar app, Docs are shared via Google Drive, and all of our employees use Android phones. We've never minded the advertising, probably because we're an advertising company--we see ads as just insight into our competition."
Richard Schur, the CEO of United Country Monument, a Colorado realty and auctioneer, says his company, which used to rely on Outlook, is now wholly dependent on Gmail and the Gmail calendar. "I'm never switching back," he says.
In fact, some business owners told me they don't mind being Scroogled. It is a widespread practice. Some argue that Gmail features like labels, canned responses, and the message send undo functions are too valuable to give up.
For its part, Google released this statement on the Scroogled campaign:
Advertising keeps Google and many of the websites and services Google offers free of charge. We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant. No humans read your email or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information. An automated algorithm--similar to that used for features like Priority Inbox or spam filtering--determines which ads are shown.
What do you think?