In December 2013, the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce concluded a months long investigation into the business of consolidating, packaging, and selling vast amounts of consumer data without the explicit consent of the consumer. The report, released by Senator Jay D. Rockefeller, concluded that data brokers were illicitly collecting, selling, and misusing consumer information. Industry backlash was swift and vitriolic. According to these industry groups, this vast trove of consumer information is the only way to improve the online experience. Consumers crave relevance, these executives argue, and the only way to understand their wants and desires is to collect information without ever asking for it.
However, this is not the only way to learn more about your customers. Companies that want to collect user data should first offer a compelling reason for collecting that information. Then, they should just ask. Instead of skirting the limits of privacy laws and facing intense legal pressure from legislators to justify an improved consumer experience, businesses can create an even better one by asking the right questions. Bing is the best example of this.
Bing search, though not very good for general research, excels in the area where Google has traditionally failed — social relevance. Google spends billions of dollars a year researching algorithms that surface higher quality search results. It understands 100+ languages and an infinite number of misspellings but fails at the very basic need to tell the user what his/her network is talking about.
Google’s search teams are well aware of this problem. Competitors such as Bing, Yelp, Angie’s List, FindTheBest, and others will chip away at Google Search as they become better at providing social-network supplied recommendations. Google has taken two steps to address this challenge. First, they are able to analyze the entirety of a user’s search and browsing history to create a profile of that individual and increase the quality of the search result. Second, they give priority to Google+ posts by users’ friends in search results. If I search for a local pizza place and a Google+ friend of mine has written a positive review about them on Google+, Google search can show my friends review as the first search result. Of course, Google+ has a significant adoption problem and my search and browsing history does not shed any insight to the value I place on friends’ recommendations.
Bing takes a different approach — it asks the user to improve his/her search experience by creating a Bing account via Facebook. Touted as “personalized recommendations”, Bing search results effortlessly prioritize the comments made by my friends about a particular search term over their own algorithms. Though my friends do not post the answers to a majority of my search terms, the ones that they do address are more than relevant. These search results overcome the trust issues users have when making decisions based on the recommendations of strangers. Search is no longer a question-and-answer with a series of sophisticated algorithms. Search polls my friends and shows me answers they have already written. Bing does not rely on its own social network or even Microsoft’s vast collection of user information collected over decades of Internet Explore use. Bing simply convinces the user that his/her experience will be improved by connecting with Facebook.
Bing asks for the correct permissions. When a website or app asks a user to “Connect with Facebook”, it has the opportunity to ask for specific pieces of information from a user’s Facebook profile. Companies can ask for information ranging from birthday, email, likes, and location (BELL permissions are an Umbel best practice) to political affiliation, sexual orientation, marital status, and the ability to post on the user’s wall. Companies should not ask for the latter set without a compelling reason. Bing asks for a specific permission called “access to newsfeed”. This is a read-only permission, meaning Bing will never post to the user’s wall. They only want access to all posts made by the friends of a particular user. If a user is logged in with Facebook on the Bing website and performs a search, Bing will first search through all posts made in the newsfeed for that user. If there is a match between the keywords searched and friends’ posts in that users newsfeed, Bing will show that result above the ones chosen programmatically. Search results are immediately personalized and the user is left to make the subjective decision about whether to trust the recommendation of the friend. The remainder of the search results may rely on data collected without the user’s explicit consent, but the best answers appear because Bing provided a compelling reason to ask for a specific piece of information from the user.
As Congress continues its crackdown against third-party data brokers and companies that track and trade user behavior, companies like Bing (and of course Umbel) will succeed. Instead of sneaking cookies in a browser to paint a fragmented picture of consumer identity that may not noticeably improve the online experience, companies will ask for specific pieces of information that result in improved consumer experiences. Consumers will volunteer this information if they know it will be used in an ethical manner. Bing asks for access to my Facebook Newsfeed. It is far from an industry best practice. Users embrace it because it offers them something Google cannot — socially relevant search.