MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Taking a page from Facebook, Google (GOOG) said Friday that it will start showing user comments and endorsements in ads that appear on Google services and potentially millions of other sites across the Web.
While the Internet giant took pains to assure users they will be able to control who sees those messages, the company's new "shared endorsements" program drew immediate criticism from privacy watchdogs who predicted that many people will be dismayed to see their photos and comments used
in commercial advertising. Critics said they'll ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the program violates an earlier legal settlement with Google over privacy complaints.
Google, however, said the program will provide more useful information to consumers. And while the company's Google+ social network is smaller than Facebook's, Google potentially could show individual user recommendations to a much larger audience through its advertising service, which places ads on a variety of popular websites.
"Word-of-mouth advertising is very effective," said Rebecca Lieb, a digital media analyst at Altimeter Group. But she noted that similar ads on Facebook have sparked privacy complaints and lawsuits.
Google announced the new program in an online statement describing changes in policies that govern its consumer services, including Google+, the online market known as Play and other services. The changes will take effect Nov. 11, but Google said users will be able to limit or completely opt out from the ads. Google won't share endorsements from users under 18.
The company has begun telling users about the changes through notices on its home page and other sites.
Google has previously used endorsements in ads on a limited scale. When a person who is signed into a Google account clicks on a "+1" symbol, similar to Facebook's "like" button, the person's name and profile photo may appear next to a "+1" symbol in paid listings or other ads.
Under its new policy, the company said it may show more information, such as user comments, reviews, ratings or the fact that a person has "followed" a company on Google+.
"Recommendations from people you know can really help," the company said. "For example, your friends might see that you rated an album 4 stars on the band's Google Play page. And the +1 you gave your favorite local bakery could be included in an ad that the bakery runs through Google."
Facebook has long promoted the notion that friends' recommendations are both a useful service and a powerful advertising tool, although it's increasingly emphasizing other aspects of its ad program, such as the ability to tailor messages to an individual's preferences and other characteristics. Facebook recently settled a lawsuit over its use of endorsements and the FTC is now reviewing some related changes Facebook made to its policies.
Google said it will show endorsement ads only to the audience categories -- such as "friends," "family" or the general public -- that users have designated to see their original posts. Users can also block any use of their endorsements in ads.
Facebook allows users to limit but not completely block such ads. It's also been criticized for using teens' endorsements.
"It's good that Google is protecting teens," said Jeff Chester of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy. But he noted that adults must take the extra step of changing their account settings to opt out of the new ads, if they haven't already indicated their preferences. Opting out should be the default setting, he said.
"Google and Facebook are turning its users into digital pitchmen," he said. "There's something wrong with that."
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.
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Original headline: Privacy advocates object to Google's plan to add user recommendations to advertising
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