Three sides to every Scroogled: Microsoft's, Google's, and the truth

Microsoft is gunning for Google with their new "Scroogled" campaign, but what does Google actually do with your emails? (Hint: Not exactly what Microsoft claims.) Also, I show you how to opt out of email-driven ads in Gmail.
Written by Stephen Chapman, Contributor

Microsoft, via their new "Scroogled" campaign, has just put Google on blast for their practice of scanning through every word of every email so as to target ads to Gmail users. The problem with this campaign of Microsoft's is the manner in which they're portraying Google's handling of Gmail emails. If you've yet to see it, then take a quick look at the Scroogled video, where Microsoft ultimately offers their Outlook services in lieu of Gmail:

The agency Microsoft hired for this campaign did a great job of planting mental images of employees at Google actually reading through emails, and it seems as though that's the single thread Microsoft hopes to hang on to here to gain traction and (surprise, surprise) make money.

What -- you didn't think Microsoft actually cared about the ethical points they raise in the campaign, did you? More on this in a bit.

You see, Microsoft knows that the average user doesn't have a clue about crawling, algorithms, or anything else that's of a remotely technical nature. As such, Microsoft's able to present this whole thing as Google nefariously reading every single word of every single email, including emails non-Gmail users send to Gmail users.

So, what's the truth? Does Google really "read" every single Gmail email? No.

Google has algorithms baked into their services, like Gmail, that scan through words, then make decisions to tailor ads based on various factors that may or may not include the words they've scanned. In other words, the only thing in Google that's "reading" your emails is the very same type of thing that "reads" your emails to identify spam (Care to venture who else identifies spam by checking the contents of your emails?), or to properly handle send/receive requests, etc. It's a process; an algorithm.

There's not a physical body sitting there reading through the countless emails that find their way through Gmail's servers. The algorithm doesn't care about the context of the words, outside of to tailor ads. Where that's concerned, Microsoft was eager to make the point that Google incorrectly tailored an ad in an insensitive manner with a Gmail user whose cat died.

Logical fallacies abound in that example of theirs (maybe that Gmail user has other pets or will be looking to get a new pet, and that coupon is something they can actually use), but since Microsoft's primary point was Google being insensitive and getting it "wrong" with their ad, I wonder what ads Bing might show me for searching for something like "my dad died." Your mileage may very, but here's what I got:

Credit: Bing, ZDNet
Credit: Bing, ZDNet

Oh, yeah, that's fantastic, Microsoft. My dad died, so I want to write him some poems and then see amazing deals on Yahoo Shopping. Good point you made about Gmail and the cat, though. Seems legit.

I'm just being facetious there, but the example above goes to show the point that Microsoft is capable of being equally as "insensitive" in their targeting. Personally, I understand that search/ad algorithms are far from perfect on any platform, but Microsoft seems to want people to believe that Google is somehow intentionally insensitive with their ad targeting while they're stripping your emails of every morsel of privacy they can.

That's just not the case, though I'm not so disillusioned as to believe Google's privacy measures are by any means perfect or 100% transparent. There was the case of Google firing a couple of employees back in 2010 for reading emails and chat logs of Gmail users, but that could have realistically happened anywhere.

Back to the Scroogled video, Microsoft makes mention that you cannot opt out of Google "reading" all of your emails. That's not true, as evidenced by this YouTube video posted in 2011 by Google Business that clearly shows the ability to opt out. For those of you who are interested in doing so, here's how to opt out of email-based ad tailoring in Gmail: (Update: It appears that opting out of ads in Google via the method below does not opt you out of Google's contextual ads -- the ads Microsoft is pointing out in their campaign; however, if you view Gmail via the basic HTML view, you will not be shown ads in Gmail. From Google: "If you do opt-out, you may still see contextual ads based on the message you are reading as well as other relevant ads. If you don't want to see ads in Gmail, you can choose to use Gmail’s basic HTML view, or POP1 or IMAP.")

1: Visit this link, then sign in: https://www.google.com/settings/ads/preferences?hl=en

2: Click "Opt out" on the left-hand side

3: Click the "Opt out" button

Credit: Google, ZDNet
Credit: Google, ZDNet

Alternately, Google allows you to freely set up your Gmail account with third-party email clients, so you can avoid ads altogether if you so choose!

So, what's the truth behind the Scroogle? Well, Microsoft's side is that Google doesn't care about your privacy, so you should instead use Outlook because Microsoft won't serve you ads based on the content of your email. Google's side is that they champion the privacy of their users and they're creating a better ad experience, though you can opt out of email-based ad tailoring if you so choose. But the truth is that Google is currently making bucketloads of cash, and Microsoft wants a slice of that pie. Either way, you and I simply boil down to dollar signs. Microsoft wants to be the ones who advertise to you, not Google.

Also, privacy is a hot button topic, so Microsoft went for it. It's incredibly easy to get people to feel like they're violated on the Internet these days, but in this case, the truth is that an ad-tailoring email algorithm simply doesn't care about the things most would define as an actual invasion of their privacy. I've had a stranger dig through an email account of mine before, and trust me when I say that this isn't even remotely close to that sort of genuinely infuriating invasion of privacy. But that's just an opinion forged from personal experience.

Whatever you feel Google (or Microsoft, or any other email provider, for that matter) might be doing with email data behind the scenes is your call. As for me, I remain a content Gmail user, still puzzled by the fact that email ads even really work, since I never, ever see them. Ever. They're there! But I just don't see them. Kind of like Google and the contents of my emails. *wink*

What are your thoughts? Do you think Google is crossing a line by tailoring email ads? And what of Microsoft's goal with this campaign? Do you think they really care about the privacy of Gmail users, or do you agree with me that they're just shooting for fatter pockets? Get busy in the comments below!

Editorial standards