We hear so much about how much data regarding our friends/connections in social media helps organizations to profile us. This of course raises privacy concerns but it also enables organizations to better our Web experience. An early pioneer in this concept was Amazon.com who recommend products related to items we have purchased and viewed in the past. This is beneficial to Amazon.com as it increases sales whilst it also benefits the customer as supporting products may be found.
What does surprise me is that the biggest social graph of all seems to get no attention at all. Facebook is extremely popular however the data regarding social connections is average in accuracy at best (e.g. just because someone posts and updates how do we know if people actually read that update?). Gmail however is an absolute goldmine of information regarding connections and related activity.
The value of Gmail to Google
Gmail is a free email service that competes with the likes of Hotmail (soon to be renamed outlook.com) and Yahoo mail (Y! mail). Gmail also acts as a premium hosted email solution for millions of businesses, government departments, charities and so on (I use Gmail for my email as part of Google Apps).
Google makes money from the free Gmail services through advertising. Google Apps is a freemium service and Google makes money through subscriptions. But, the value of the data that these free and paid email accounts provide Google is unbelievably beneficial; Google makes most of its money from advertising and, to serve the most relevant ads to viewers, Google needs to know what will trigger a response from the person viewing the advert.
The value of Gmail Data
I don’t know how one would quantify the value of email data but lets consider the amount and type of data that Google is able to attain from Gmail without, likely, attaining any private information from users (I do think that Google does a very good job of being transparent about the data it collects).
What data is collected by Gmail
Included is a chart showing how many emails were sent and received by my Gmail account. Notice that the number of contact and trending is included. These data are freely available by Google.
Google therefore knows who I communicate with and how often. Of course I’m no anomaly, Google has access to this information for tens of millions of email accounts (and that’s for Gmail alone and doesn’t include the access to information it has from Google+, Google Contacts, Google Search and so on).
How significant is Google Gmail?
The chart below shows the number of emails sent to various email services by Mailchimp.com. Note that the data in the chart include emails sent to the Gmail domain alone i.e. those millions of Gmail users that use their own domain name to receive email through Gmail aren’t included in the data and this is a massive number of email addresses.
So, just a single (albeit large) newsletter service is sending 536,377,176 million emails a month to the Gmail domain!
And below we see the proportion of people sharing articles, images and Websites using Gmail as the service provider (compared to Hotmail and Y! mail).
How Google may use Email data
So, even although Google collects all this social interaction data, how may this be useful and profitable to Google? Mining and making sense of all this data is a massive job but Google are the experts at data analysis, research and interpretation and dedicate vast resources in making sense of data.
As noted previously, the most obvious benefit to Google, from all this email data, will be in customizing adverts to what is known about the viewer of the advert. Other advantages are also obvious; take Google’s foray into the travel industry with their acquisitions of Frommer’s Guides and Zagat. Before someone is about to go on a vacation they may email friends and the location of these friends (the data may show a spike of emails to a particular location) could be used to show flight prices to that location and things to do at the location.
How this data may be used is vast.
Is there a danger in Google collecting this information?
There are many privacy concerns regarding the Web and the social graph. I however am a massive fan of Google (I believe their services are awesome) and don’t believe that our privacy is in immediate danger because of the data that Google collects via Gmail. There is alot that Google can do with the data without breaching any privacy ethical or legal thresholds.
Again, it amazes me how often we see articles mentioning how social media tracks our interactions however I haven’t seen one that describes just how powerful the massive volumes of data about Gmail usage may deliver.