Microsoft Uses “Scroogled” Ads To Attack Decade-Old Gmail Feature

Microsoft is at it again with a new “Scroogled” campaign (you know, the ads where Microsoft attacks Google for things). The whole thing is a promotion for Microsoft’s Th...
Microsoft Uses “Scroogled” Ads To Attack Decade-Old Gmail Feature
Written by Chris Crum

Microsoft is at it again with a new “Scroogled” campaign (you know, the ads where Microsoft attacks Google for things). The whole thing is a promotion for Microsoft’s

The basic premise is that Google serves you ads in Gmail based on the content of your messages. Google has been doing this since Gmail launched in 2004. It’s been well known. They are doing nothing new or different than what they’ve done all this time. It’s completely algorithmic, and they have no humans reading emails and deciding what ads to serve. Google serves ads. It’s how they make money to keep providing users with products like Gmail.

Microsoft, on the “Scroogled” site, says, “Think Google respects your privacy? Think again. Google goes through every Gmail that’s sent or received, looking for keywords so they can target Gmail users with paid ads. And there’s no way to opt out of this invasion of your privacy.”

Of course, there is the option of not using Gmail, which is what Microsoft wants you to do, obviously. What Microsoft doesn’t tell you in the Scroogled campaign (which search industry vet Danny Sullivan does), is that Microsoft does go through your messages (also algorithmically) to help filter out spam and phishing attacks (which Google also does). The difference is that Google is also able to serve targeted ads as well – something that Microsoft has evidently chosen not to do.

Sullivan spoke with Microsoft senior director of Online Services, Stefan Weitz, who says that for security, the practice makes sense, and it’s the scanning for contextual targeting of ads that Microsoft objects to (again, this is after nearly a decade that they’re suddenly objecting). This is essentially the basis for MIcrosoft’s new ads.

Check out the natural dialogue in this one:

The next one asks, “Who wants a free pet exam coupon when the family cat has been put down?”

The cat thing is a fair point. It is always possible that ad targeting will go wrong, but that really just says to me that Google could get better at targeting.

An opt out option is certainly not a terrible idea for consumers, but it would be interesting to know how big a concern the privacy thing this really is to consumers to begin with. Gmail has become very popular over the last decade, and this ad targeting thing has always been a well known part of the system. Does every user realize it’s happening. Probably not, but this was a story that was covered in the media back when it was relevant, and it did little to stop Gmail’s popularity from growing. Here are the Microsoft-commissioned polling numbers the company is throwing around about consumer reaction:

  • 88 percent of Americans disapprove of email service providers scanning the content of their personal emails in order to target ads, and 52 percent disapprove strongly.
  • 89 percent of Americans agree that email service providers should not be allowed to scan the content of personal emails in order to target ads.
  • 83 percent of Americans agree that email service providers scanning the content of their personal emails to target ads is an invasion of privacy.
  • 70 percent of Americans didn’t believe or didn’t know that any major email service provider scans the content of personal emails in order to target ads.
  • 88 percent of email users believe that email service providers should allow users to “opt out” if they prefer that the content of their emails not be scanned in order to target ads.

That second ad also pulls out some old footage of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt smiling and saying, “There’s what I call the creepy line and the Google policy about a lot of these things is to get right up to the creepy line, but not cross it.”

Of course, that clip is completely out of context here. It’s from a 2010 interview with The Atlantic (which Google itself has posted to YouTube):

You can start about 14 minutes in. The line comes at a part where Schimdt and the interviewer are joking about brain implants, which Schmidt says would in fact cross the “creepy line”. Granted, he does follow up with “at least for the moment…until the technology gets better”. I’m eager to see the Scroogled ad about brain implants, for sure, but Schmidt was not talking about the algorithmic ad serving that takes place within Gmail. He does talk about Google Instant and the type of technology that would pretty much become the basis for Google Now (neither of which is being attacked in this Scroogled campaign).

So what does Google think about the latest attack from Microsoft? Here’s the statement they’ve been sending around:

“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.”

If you want a more in depth explanation from Google, here’s an old help center article about Gmail and privacy. Here’s the entirety of the ad-related section:

All major free webmail services carry advertising, and most of it is irrelevant to the people who see it. Google believes that showing relevant advertising offers more value to users than displaying random pop-ups or untargeted banner ads. In Gmail, users will see text ads and links to related pages that are relevant to the content of their messages. The links to related pages are similar to Google search results, and are culled from Google’s extensive index of web pages. They are selected solely for their helpfulness and are not paid advertisements.

In Gmail, ads appear alongside messages, in the same way that ads appear next to search results on Google. Ads are clearly identified as ‘Sponsored Links.’ They are displayed in a way that doesn’t interrupt users as they read their messages and ads are never inserted into the body text of either incoming or outgoing Gmail messages.

Ads and links to related pages only appear alongside the message that they are targeted to, and are only shown when the Gmail user, whether sender or recipient, is viewing that particular message. No email content or other personally identifiable information is ever shared with advertisers. In fact, advertisers do not even know how often their ads are shown in Gmail, as this data is aggregated across thousands of sites in the Google Network.

By offering Gmail users relevant ads and information related to the content of their messages, we aim to offer users a better webmail experience. For example, if you and your friends are planning a vacation, you may want to see news items or travel ads about the destination you’re considering.

To ensure a quality user experience for all Gmail users, we avoid showing ads reflecting sensitive or inappropriate content by only showing ads that have been classified as “Family-Safe.” Gmail’s filters also block ads from running next to messages about catastrophic events or tragedies, erring on the side of not displaying an ad if the content is questionable.

Many people have found that the search-related ads on can be valuable–not merely a necessary evil, but a welcome feature. We believe that users will also find Gmail’s ads and related pages to be helpful, because the information reflects their interests. In fact, we have already received positive feedback from Gmail users about the quality and usefulness of our ads and related pages.

The part about the scanning of email content is particularly relevant here as well:

All email services scan your email. They do this routinely to provide such popular features as spam filtering, virus detection, search, spellchecking, forwarding, auto-responding, flagging urgent messages, converting incoming email into mobile phone text messages, automatic saving and sorting into folders, converting text URLs to clickable links, and reading messages to the blind. These features are widely accepted, trusted, and used by hundreds of millions of people every day.

Google scans the text of Gmail messages in order to filter spam and detect viruses, just as all major webmail services do. Google also uses this scanning technology to deliver targeted text ads and other related information. This is completely automated and involves no humans.

When a user opens an email message, computers scan the text and then instantaneously display relevant information that is matched to the text of the message. Once the message is closed, ads are no longer displayed. It is important to note that the ads generated by this matching process are dynamically generated each time a message is opened by the user–in other words, Google does not attach particular ads to individual messages or to users’ accounts.

We recognise that seeing ads based on the content of an email message can be unsettling at first. Our experience has been that this feeling recedes as users become more familiar with Gmail. However, some people, many of whom have not used Gmail, have reacted by condemning all automatic scanning of email content, on the grounds that it amounts to a violation of privacy. We think this criticism is misplaced. All major email services, including Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, automatically scan email content for the benefit of users. When email messages are fully protected from unwanted disclosure, the automatic scanning of email does not amount to a violation of privacy.

On the other hand, delivering information gathered through email scanning to a third party would be a violation of privacy. Google does not do this. Neither email content nor any personal information is ever shared with other parties as a result of our ad-targeting process.

Emphasis in both sections is Google’s.

“Emails are personal — and people feel that reading through their emails to sell ads is out of bounds,” says Weitz. “We honor the privacy of our users, and we are concerned that Google violates that privacy every time an user exchanges messages with someone on Gmail. This campaign is as much about protecting users from Gmail as it is about making sure Gmail users know what Google’s doing.”

Around the holidays, Microsoft started its Scroogled campaign against Google Shopping. Last week, we learned that Microsoft will be launching its own product listing ads (the ad format on which Google Shopping is based) later this year. Microsoft’s David Pann tells us, however, that the Bing Shopping experience will keep free listings alongside the paid ones.

We should have more on this latest Scroogled campaign from Weitz in the near future.

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