Google caused a commotion when it announced updates to its Terms of Service to allow the search giant to begin using user reviews in ads. (Users are alerted to the changes by a bar that appears at the top of at least some Google sites.) “Shared endorsements,” as Google calls them, will place your name, photo, comments, and ratings in Web ads seen by your friends. This can include businesses reviewed in Google Maps, reviews from the Google Play store, and anything on the Web for which you’ve clicked a +1 button.
This isn’t quite as troubling as it first appears. After all, the entire point of reviewing products is to inform the public. That said, I have two problems with Google’s approach.
First, if Google is going to monetize the work of its users, then it should share the profits. Companies pay celebrities big bucks for endorsements — we common folk should be compensated as well. Such an approach would encourage even more users to review products, although it might lead to an epidemic of sock puppetry.
Second, whether or not Google were to share revenues with users, the addition of user reviews to Web ads could give Google an uncomfortable incentive to encourage positive reviews and possibly hide or sanitize negative ones.
The good news is that it’s easy to opt out of shared endorsements, and you may already have opted out in the distant past by answering a similar question while signing up for Google+. Just visit the Shared Endorsements settings page and deselect the checkbox reading “Based upon my activity, Google may show my name and profile photo in shared endorsements that appear in ads.” (Parsing the meaning of the checkbox with such wording is on par with having to select the Limit Ad Tracking option in Apple’s iOS privacy settings to opt out of ad tracking; fortunately, Apple moved that control from iOS 6’s hidden Settings > General > About > Advertising location to the sensible Settings > Privacy > Advertising spot in iOS 7.)
While we certainly don’t recommend allowing Google to use your work in shared endorsements, at least Google lets you opt out. Facebook’s “sponsored stories” do very much the same thing, and Facebook doesn’t let you to opt out, only control who can see your activity. (Facebook introduced sponsored stories in January 2011 without changing its terms of service and ended up paying $20 million to settle the resulting class-action suit.) It’s hard to imagine that Twitter isn’t planning a similar feature.
And yes, it is legal for these companies to do this — apart from Google’s opt-out option, your only real defense is to stop recommending things via social media services.