Can nothing stop Google?

On Thanksgiving, Microsoft launched attack ads against the Internet giant that were so ferocious they made headlines in advertising and technology publications alike.

Microsoft spokespeople are still warning anyone who will listen that Google is reading its users’ email and delivering biased results in Google Shopping. But it has stopped buying the controversial Scroogled ads on television, in newspapers, and social media.

“That part is about finished,” Stefan Weitz, Microsoft senior director of online services, said on Thursday.

By one measure, the ads succeeded. Over 110,000 people signed Microsoft’s petition on the Care2 petition site to “Tell Google to stop going through your email to sell ads.” Microsoft originally set a goal of 25,000 names.

But if Microsoft hoped its campaign would win it a greater share of the market for Internet search or webmail, it looks like a pretty big flop. Data from market research suggests that users of Google search and Gmail shrugged off the onslaught.

“It’s a little early to say, but it appears to be backfiring,” said Jonathan Weber, an online advertising executive at LunaMetrics digital marking firm in Pittsburgh.

In the ads, still available online, Microsoft makes two claims about its competitor. First, it charges that Google scans Gmail messages, looking for keywords it can use to serve up relevant advertising.

Here’s an example of the first claim:

Second, it says that the results of searches in Google Shopping are paid advertisements, as in this ad:

The complaints aren’t new. Microsoft put out a longer, more humorous Gmail Man advertisement a year ago:

(Asked for comments, a Google spokesperson provided a written statement pointing out that live human beings at the company don’t scan everyone’s emails. “An automated algorithm–similar to that used for features like Priority Inbox or spam filtering–determines which ads are shown.”)

On one level, the Scroogled campaign is just another example of a company trashing a rival. “Microsoft is in the position of the underdog and so the use of negative advertising is not surprising,” said Weber.

What sets apart the Microsoft campaign is that–especially in the early weeks–it said almost nothing about its own products. In that way it differed sharply from Apple’s famous “I’m a Mac” campaign that purported to offer a side-by-side comparison with Microsoft’s Windows operating system.

In fact the Scroogled campaign was more reminiscent of political advertising. And some observers said it was telling that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s former pollster, Mark Penn, took a job at Microsoft before the campaign began.

Weitz said Penn had little to do with the effort. But he acknowledged that the campaign started with an opinion poll conducted by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. “We found that seven out of 10 Americans don’t know that this practice of scanning emails was happening, and when they found out they didn’t like it,” said Weitz.

Microsoft saw an opportunity to challenge what had become an almost unconscious habit. If you want to find something on the Internet, you Google it. “People do it with muscle memory,” said Weitz. “They don’t even give it a thought.”

By raising the privacy and bias concerns, Microsoft wanted to introduce at least a moment of hesitation. “They will hit that cognitive speed bump,” he said.

But that strategy doesn’t seem to have clicked with users.

The latest market share scores from comScore show Google with a 67 percent share of Internet searches for January 2013, up 0.3% from its 66.7 percent share in December 2012. The gain erased its 0.3% loss from the month before.

Microsoft sites registered a 0.3% gain from November to January to reach a 16.5% share, but that increase appeared to come at the expense of also-rans like Ask and the struggling Yahoo!.

Email market share is harder to measure because people read their email on a variety of different software on different devices and sometimes read the same message multiple times. Also Microsoft launched, an upgrade and rebranding of its web-based email program during the Scroogle campaign, further muddying the metrics.

But even Weitz isn’t claiming that Microsoft has unseated Gmail’s position at or near the top of the heap among email services Americans like to use. “It’s a habit,” said Weitz. “It’s like smoking. It’s hard to get folks to stop doing it.”

Not only that, the ads just didn’t resonate, said Weber of LunaMetrics. “This sort of talk about privacy rings false and obscures the real issues,” he said.

Users do care about privacy. But they are apparently sophisticated enough to know there isn’t a human Gmail Man snooping on them, and they are willing to let a machine scan their emails and show them ads in exchange for a free service. “By and large, people said, ‘Eh, I don’t care about this,'” said Weber.

And from a privacy standpoint, the distinction Microsoft made was trivial, said Seth Schoen, a senior staff technologist for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. “What Microsoft was emphasizing is that they are not using users’ data in the same way, in particular to target advertising,” he said. “As far as I know that’s true. But it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do that.”

Both companies collect data on what terms users plug into their search engines and use that information to target ads, he said. The practice of looking at emails to target ads is only slightly removed from that.

If they really wanted to get serious about privacy, Schoen said, Google and Microsoft would offer encrypted email programs that would be much harder for anyone to scan and analyze, including hackers, and they would create these technologies in ways that the security could be audited by third parties.

So far neither company seems interested in such a venture. “Against that backdrop there’s not much difference between the two,” said Schoen.

Microsoft’s complaint about Google Shopping results has a little more validity, Weber and Schoen agreed.

Users don’t expect search results to be influenced by what advertisers pay, especially since the earlier version of Google Shopping, Froogle, didn’t organize results that way, said Schoen.

But Google isn’t hiding the practice–its acknowledged on the Google Shopping page. And Weber says the Scroogle ads felt heavy-handed. “There is a legitimate difference to be exploited there. But Microsoft should adjust the tone, talk about why their product is great.”

Which brings us to the best advice Weber has to offer Microsoft. “What they really have to focus on is having a better product.”

Microsoft Winds Down ‘Scroogled’ Campaign Against Google 7 May,2014Laird Harrison

  • Well, this really misses the point. Campaigns, by definition, have a start and end. While paid media might be winding down – as I said – the fact is the issue is becoming more present in everyone’s minds. That it has jumped from mainstream back into the technosphere (see the RSA conference this week where Google’s GC again avoided the core issue) shows how it’s not just about ads – it’s about the substance. Sorry you didn’t see that.


      Why does EFF say Microsoft does not have our back in 3/4 categories? Most people could care less that a pie company serves them ads for pies. People do care that governments want to track and access their data. Why not start that conversation with some action instead of all of this hypothetical “consciousness” and “awareness” business?

      Back in the early 90s, Microsoft was all about defending us from government intrusion. Now, Microsoft is all about protecting us from text ads for vet coupons.

  • Dave

    Why is MS consumer marketing so bad? Why would they resort to this type of negative marketing that makes their brand look worse by making ads that have the quality of a infomercial on late night tv? In terms of email they have changed the name of the service from hotmail to live to outlook in the span of 4 years – as a consumer I dont even know what MS is advertising for but just know they have to resort to smear tactics to do it. They can do better than this!

  • Terry

    I thought it was a great campaign, would hope they keep it up!
    I am oppossed to even algorithms snooping through my e-mail. It might – and I do say might be necessary for national security, but definately NOT for the purpose of advertising.

    • Mike

      then you can’t use outlook either – it still serves ads based on your profile.

    • Jerry

      I am curious to why people are so against this concept of personalized advertising. I have no problems with a computer (as opposed to a human) analyzing my interests. If I have to see ads, I’d rather see things that I’m interested in, can benefit me, etc. rather than generic, general ads, or worse- viagara or something.

    • What do you mean you are ‘opposed to even algorithms snooping’? Do you think Google employees are actually sitting there and reading your emails? All of Google’s ad services are done by algorithms/bots/servers and what not. These bots are just there to look at keywords and nothing else. I don’t like the ads either but it’s a free service after all.

  • I tried the Bing it On challenge and searched for tacos just like the commercial said to.

    Bing: a 24-hour breakfast place, Pak-Indian cuisine, a brewery, and Pizza Factory. Oh, and a bold text ad for Taco Bell (I suppose that is relevant).

    Google: all of the Mexican restaurants in the area, no results for non-Mexican restaurants. Did have a SE Asian/Mexican fusion taco truck listed, but that place does have great tacos.

    I tried, Microsoft. Now, you try. Stop with the nonsense advertising on Hulu Plus and SNL and make competitive products. Or buy companies who make competitive products, whatever. Stop trying to sell us altavista with background images and hotmail with whitespace.

  • A-D-W-O-R-D-S
  • Google is a far superior search engine to Bing, FAR SUPERIOR. Microsofts campaign against Google as a failure and backfired on Microsoft. If Bing was a superior search engine OR if Outlook was such a better email service (which I like Outlook and use it myself), then Microsoft should have focused on the positives. Instead Microsoft appeared as a sore loser…another Microsoft advertising failure. The best thing Microsoft could do is fire its advertising agency and hire the guys running Apple’s advertising 🙂

  • Joe

    I thought it was a silly campaign, scraping low like our politicians in Wasington to bring the other guy down rather than talking about what’s so good about themselves. Made me think less of Microsoft – as a desperate shrinking giant, and it put me off on looking at whatever it was they were selling. Does not bother me that there some google code out there auto picking ads for me to see based what is in my emails. I never look at the ads anyway. I am reading my emails. When it comes to privacy concerns, there are much bigger concerns out there – Facebook ranking #1 as the biggest soul harvester.

  • I like Outlook for work emails. This ad was written in a trailer park. First thing most people teach you in business, is not to attack your competition because it makes you look weak!

  • john_onsaki12

    great to attend

  • Its absolutely Negative marketing.Y not Microsoft market with their search result features?Its very bad experience.

  • You think Google taking a ‘peek’ at you mail is wrong, and it is….
    Think what they do with all the information that they get….goes to CIA and the Z intell agencies… beware…..

  • Did Microsoft campaign pay off?

    It is too early to tell. For people who have been using Google for years, it takes time to break the habit.

    This “scroogle” campaign is just a part of the overall strategy to attack the TRUST issue for Google, Inc. This campaign willl take time — it takes time to erode consumer’s trust in Google, Inc.
    Microsoft’s next campaign is to attack Google Wallet practice of giving client’s confidential data (name, address, email address) to Apps developers.
    Microsoft should not give up — it must continue attack Google on the TRUST issue — to subconsciously plant on consumers’ mind that they cannot trust Google with their information.
    This is not a sprint — it is a long-term strategy. The “scroogle” campaign is just a small piece of the overall strategy to erode consumers’ trusts in Google — to ultimately bring down the Evil Empire.

  • I despise negative advertizing. Bing’s ads greatly increased my loyalty to Google

  • Justine

    Oh, Microsoft! (pats on head)

  • Dave Levesque

    I stopped using hotmail years ago because of the mountains of junk mail. Gmail may propose advertising on the side but I can read my emails without having to sort through 5 bizzalions of emails about male enhancement and some prince in Nigeria. Which is better ads or your email address sold to spammers?

    • Dave Levesque

      One more think, using Youtube to broadcast your ads against Google is really clever.

  • While I think it is kind of weird and creepy that Google searches for keywords in my emails to make ads, I have to remind myself that this is a FREE service. If I were paying for this service then I’d have a fit that they are giving me ads. It’s the same with Facebook. People who complain about the ads on their are out of their minds. While I’m not a huge fan of them myself, at the end of the day, it is a FREE service.

    My corporate gmail client has no ads at all mainly because my company pays for that service and we have confidential information.

    I think people need to realize there aren’t actual Google employees going through email accounts reading emails. They’re just bots set to look at keywords. The bots do not understand content or meaning behind the emails, just that they are there.

  • its all about reaching peoples interest and selling them or the seller, something. that something is the value that the engine returns to them. the engine merely short circuits/bypasses the human effort, in terms of the expense of time, travel, even cerebral effort, to locate a desired or ‘wanted’ need (or needless) fact or product.

    computers with software have taken a work of a cipher-er, the slide rule, the mathematicians work sheet and reduced that effort (time wise) to a mere fraction of what it took humans in the eons leading up to now.

    what was once ‘effort’ that was (is) protected by copyright for selfish gain, is now become a crime to possess by currently ill conceived legal methods. these protections hamper, obfuscate and in many ways, deprive humanity the full possible benefits of it, along with the leapfrogging of intelligence that might occur.

    instead, legal actions continue to prevent full, meaningful and future use of the computer and its capability for BILLIONS of people.

    targeted results (via secret algorithms) by any ‘search engine’ is yet another retrograde behavior by some to protect a sole corporate entity and the ‘value’ it may claim as exclusive.

    Gates and his legal father know this plain well.

    “Time to market” is the phrase here, so get going!

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