The search giant announced the change which privacy advocates had been demanding late last month.

Here's what you need to know about the update and how it relates to digital marketing.

How AdWords Targeted Gmail Users

In the past, Google would literally "read" your email. If you had a Gmail account, anyway.

The company didn't do that because it was nosy (although some people might believe that). The search giant scanned emails to determine your interests.

Why? So it could show you AdWords ads that are relevant.

So you would see only ads that you care about while marketers would get targeted advertising. Everybody wins.

Or so it went for a while. This ads actually worked pretty well. For example, you could technically see if someone mentioned a competitors brand in an email and target ads towards them.

What Is Changing?

Later this year, Google will cease and desist from reading the emails of free Gmail users.

To deliver targeted ads, Google will now just examine a user's Gmail settings. It will also gather info from the user's search history and YouTube.

However, Google will still scan emails for possible phishing attacks or spam. But that follows the practice of countless other email providers.

Google will also check your emails so that it can offer the appropriate Smart Replies.

Keep in mind, Google never read the emails of paying corporate customers who used the G Suite. So there will be no change on that side of the house.

Why the Change?

Google didn't make the change in response to outcry from the general public. According to Diane Greene, senior vice president of Google Cloud, the new policy "brings Gmail ads in line with how we personalize ads for other Google products."

That sounds like a bit of corporate speak, doesn't it?

Seth Schoen, a senior staff technologist from the digital rights group Electronics Frontier Foundation, has a different take.

"This action was driven by concerns from business users -- not regular individuals," he said. "Some of the regular people who use Google services disliked the way their email contents were being used to target ads way back in 2004. Yet their concerns couldn't get much traction until Google became aware 13 years later that some current or prospective paying enterprise customers were uncomfortable with this practice."

A Corporate Play?

If Schoen is right, it's likely that Google made the change as a strategic decision to attract more corporate dollars.

Keep in mind, the lion's share of the company's income comes from advertising dollars. However, the company sees significant growth potential in Google Cloud.

Google said its policy was to never target Gmail ads based on personal info such as religion, race, sexual orientation, or financial data. So the company followed prevailing cultural standards to that extent.

Users can still opt out of receiving personalized ads. They can't, however, opt out of email scanning.

You Might Miss the Good Ole Days

Although privacy advocates can claim a victory here, the move by Google might be a setback for some digital marketers.

Why? Because those targeted ads were a great way to go after the customers and clients of competitors.

Think about it: Google scans a user's email and discovers that the person is interested in boyfriend blue jeans based on her interaction with a well-known brand. If you run a competing company that sells boyfriend blue jeans online, you could reach that user with highly targeted ads. You could even throw in a coupon code and possibly earn a new lifetime customer.

Soon, you won't have that opportunity because of the change in Google's policy.

What This Means for You

In a nutshell, it means you have one less avenue for highly targeted ads. You can no longer rely on Google to read people's emails and determine if your AdWords ads are relevant to their interests.

If you're a huge fan of highly targeted advertising, though, there are other options.

First, keep in mind that Facebook offers targeted ads based on user interests. Since Facebook gets its info from data that's publicly available (the Facebook feed of its users), there's really no privacy concerns to worry about. It's likely that policy will go on for a long time.

Also, you still have paid search. It's probably the case that people who are interested enough in a subject to discuss it by email will also use a search engine to gather information about it. You'll have a marketing opportunity there.

In short, you might have to make some minor changes to your overall digital strategy. But it won't be the end of the world. I certainly don't think our clients with suffer. It will just mean a minor shift in budget.

Published on: Jul 6, 2017
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