Facebook and Google vacuum up user data. They both are a cause for concern with regards to user privacy.
But something smells different about Facebook. Facebook seems far more sinister.
Could that really be the case? I think so.
Consider how they make money. Facebook and Google are both ad companies at their core, but how they profit from ads differs greatly.
Facebook shows you ads when you spend time on their products.
The simplified function here is (1) number of ads seen/clicked by (2) time. The ideal outcome for Facebook is to maximize both of those levers.
Facebook ads are generally placed in products that enable you to waste time – your news feed, Facebook Watch videos, keeping up with the myriad of today’s Instagram Stories…
There’s an upper limit to how many ads Facebook can show you in a given time. So Facebook’s interest is to increase the time spent on these products.
A little bit of time checking in on friends is fine. But Facebook is optimizing their products to find the upper bound of how much time you’re willing to spend. And it appears that upper bound is quite high, especially with young people.
By capitalizing on your wasted time, Facebook does better when you do worse. Your interests are at odds.
Okay, what about Google?
Google makes money when you search for things. They win when you search more often, so they put their search bar in more places: in the browser (Chrome), on your phone (Android), on your keyboard (iOS Gboard), etc.
Google’s simplified function is (1) number of ads seen/clicked by (2) how often you search for things.
Like Facebook, there’s an upper limit to how many ads Google can show in search results. If the results were all ads, people might stop using Google.
Whether you’ll click an ad is a question of whether the ad answers your question. Unlike Facebook ads, which interrupt you to sell you things while you are keeping up with your friends, Google ads are generally an attempt to answer your question. (Also unlike Facebook: Google ads are much easier to differentiate from actual search results).
How often you search for things is a user experience question. Since Google can’t make search addictive the way Facebook may do with social products, Google wants to make sure there’s as little friction as possible between you and a search bar.
Google optimizes for this by putting the Search bar everywhere. Chrome and Android, despite being free, aren’t charity projects. What’s the largest UI feature in Google Chrome? The combined Search and address bar. What’s at the top of Android’s home screen? Search.
In addition to reducing the friction between you and the search bar, Google works on making search results as useful as possible so you keep coming back.
Google does better when you do better by improving search and the supporting product suite. Your interests align.
Facebook using your data to optimize for your wasted time is far more sinister than Google using your data to better answer your questions. There’s a good reason Google feels more palatable of the two.