Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Google Playing Clickstream Catch-Up

Lately, there’s been a lot of informed speculation about Google’s forays into WiFi access points and dark fiber. Last night, Scoble weighed in thusly:

So, why do I fear Google’s wifi? Well, if you own the last few yards in between people and the Internet you can really learn a lot. You can watch everything those people click on, what pages they visit, what browsers they use, how often they turn on Skype, and a lot of other stuff.

Isn’t it the case that Microsoft already has this data on millions of MSN subcribers that use the MSN network to access the Internet? Same for AOL. And depending on its ISP agreement with SBC, perhaps Yahoo too.

The point: When it comes to having access to full user clickstreams (not just those at, Google is actually playing catch-up. So if you fear Google in that regard, you should have plenty of fear to spread around.

Yet elsewhere in the same post, Scoble seems impressed that MSN search “learns from usage patterns.” No indication of whether these are usage patterns just at MSN search or from the larger MSN clickstream pool, but either way it hints at this coin’s flipside: Clickstream data can be helpful not just to companies but to Web users. It can be used in the aggregate for improvements to the audience-wide user experience, or it can be used at the individual level, providing differentiated, personalized experiences.

Today, companies mostly use clickstreams at the aggregate level, because profiling and personalizing via the clickstream requires much more technical effort; it also requires finding an elusive sweet spot where user benefit and trust outweigh privacy risks. But a site that finds that sweet spot, as arguably has done, has enormous advantages.

Now let’s up the ante and talk about the advantages of finding that sweet spot not just at the site level (what you do at, say, but Web-wide (what you do everywhere): Who will be best at collecting and using people’s full clickstreams in a way that everyone wins enough to participate?

Because of the technical and privacy challenges, the contestants are barely out of the starting blocks, which makes Google’s game of catch-up a potential game of leapfrog. I feel a Google Don’t Be Evil™ opportunity coming on.

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