Small Businesses beware, Google is poaching your customers!

While pondering the implications of the Contextual Ads in Gmail I put myself in the position of an unsuspecting small business owner, and was amazed to learn just how focused Google was on introducing my customers to my competitors!

The Google ad platform does an incredible job of identifying an email’s context and finding the highest paying, or most clickable ad to match that context. In a setting like Gmail that means digitally reading the email from the Subject Line to the Body of the email to the Sender’s Signature, using that collected data to identify the email’s context and then finding the most suitable set of advertisers to display when the Gmail-using recipient is reading the email.

Here’s an example, check out the ads on the right (Also note that clicking on “More about…” will open a page with multiple Landscaping ads):


Gmail’s advertising engine is devastatingly effective here having served ads that are not only relevant to the subject of the email, but also to the geography of the recipient, making the ads a very potent way for those advertisers to “poach” the sender’s customers. But where does that leave poor Grassy Bass Landscaping? By sending a quote to a potential customer I have inadvertently surfaced a number of competitors, hardly seems fair! One way to minimise the impact of Google’s poaching prowess is to avoid building context through the subject line or body of the email, right now it doesn’t look like attachments are read so use the attachment to describe the work instead. That’s not ideal, but it may just avoid Gmail surfacing your most aggressive competitors right next to your mail.

Any small business that thinks Gmail is just another harmless, free webmail product should think again, it’s your competitors’ dream ticket to finding your customers after you have done all the hard work, adopt it as your own email provider at your peril.

UPDATE : In the Virtual Revolution, broadcast in the UK on the 15th February, the presenter raises these same concerns about Google’s approach to Privacy and Advertising Everywhere, some interesting perspectives here – Gmail is discussed at 1:44sec. [Note that this link will be broken if this video has not been authorised by the publisher]

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30 thoughts on “Small Businesses beware, Google is poaching your customers!

  1. Hey Bill, I just want to clarify something…

    Are you saying that a small business shouldn’t send an email to some-one that uses Gmail because the recipient might see a competitors ad? The contextual ad is served at the recipients end isn’t it? Not the senders end, so in fact the business sender has no control over what the recipient sees or uses and it wouldn’t really matter what the sender chooses, such as Hotmail, Exchange or another MS product?

    I look forward to you clearing that up for me.

    1. I think there are two points here, one is that small business owners should be aware of the impact of Gmail; If they are sending mail to someone they should provide as little opportunity as possible for Google to advertise competitors using the content of their mail. And secondly, should a small business use Gmail themselves, they need to be aware of the product they are supporting, and the long term impacts of Gmail on their own business should Gmail grow in prevalence.

    1. As far as I can tell, yes they are – the paid services offers 25gb storage instead of 7 and a few other features such as admin support, but it looks like the ads still appear.

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