At Google, the Customer is the Product

You may have recently read TechFlash’s coverage with Tom Rizzo reviewing why San Francisco chose Microsoft over Google Apps. Tom identified a fundamental difference between Microsoft’s and Google’s business models. Microsoft is a technology company that generates revenue by developing and selling products and services that help make people more productive. People are choosing Microsoft because the products work and deliver. In contrast, according to the New York Times, Google earns over 96% of its revenue from online advertising. Advertisers are attracted to Google’s customer base for potential click-through, and eyeballs viewing their ads.   

Let’s look at a task which Google users and Microsoft customers both work on, yet may not complete every day: triaging their inboxes. How many emails do you receive a day? Are there fifty, one hundred, maybe over two hundred? Many people have a daily battle with their inboxes. They sort through a sea of incoming email to find urgent ones that they need to respond to right away, and file others for later action or reading. Microsoft and Google take very different approaches when it comes to enabling your productivity. Today, we will use email management to illustrate the differences.

Microsoft’s Approach to Help You Triage Email

Outlook 2010 includes a rules engine that enables users to process messages through a rich set of options. For instance, here’s a rule that I use to filter email coming from a distribution group that I want to defer, to read when I have time. I don’t want these messages to appear in my inbox, and then be pushed to my phone.


I can automatically move the messages coming from this distribution group to a folder and mark the folder as already read. Also, I can automatically delete the messages, since I will only want to read the latest content. Since I know what is important to me, I make the personal choices on what rules I want to apply. Microsoft does not do this for me, and does not have any access to my email.

I use the rules engine almost daily and it saves me quite a bit of time.

Google’s Approach to Managing Email Volume

Google launched Priority Inbox last August. It uses “important signals” to identify messages that you likely care about the most, based on what you read and what you reply to. Google also uses some of these same "important signals" in order to serve targeted ads in Gmail, driving ad impressions, click-throughs and Google revenue. If you think Google built this feature for its customers, guess again. Think about it. In order for Google to identify which messages may be important to you, it checks your email to arrive at "important signals". It then uses them to serve ads within your Gmail account, and its ad revenues increase. Check out the video on this feature from Google:

“With features like Priority Inbox, we are trying to predict which of your messages you likely want to read and respond to first. We thought we could use some of the same signals to help predict which ads are likely to be useful to you…”  --Google

By default, an ad importance signal is included as a feature in Gmail and in Google Apps for Business. (See below.)

You know your data is important to your business, but did you know Google’s business also depends on your data?  Now, why does this matter to you as the customer?  It gets back to the intention. Is the product intended to help customers be productive online, or is the product an opportunity to land more ads?  An author raises the question of how much we should trust Google


Google has acquired far more information, both public and private, and has invented more ways to use it, than anyone in history. Information is power, and in Google's case, Cleland argues, it's the power to influence and control virtually everything the Internet touches. Google's power is largely unchecked, unaccountable -- and grossly underestimated.

Are you becoming Google’s product, in order to drive their advertising revenue? Can you depend on Google as a trusted partner for your business needs? Instead of using these “signals” to guess what should be in your inbox, why doesn’t Google give you the sole ability to read, prioritize and triage your email? Now you know the answer!

Comments (30)

  1. @SR and JoeTierney: Google’s Filtering provides basic functionality that’s not nearly comparable to Outlook’s Rules capability or flexibility.  We used Priority Inbox, which is Google’s latest feature to help users triage email when combined with filters, as a closer comparison.  The facts still do not change: Google builds products/features to drive their ad business by scanning their email.

  2. @Russ: Any objection to scanning Google Apps for Business customers' data for advertising? From Google Privacy Policy ("This Privacy Policy applies to all of the products, services and websites offered by Google...When you visit Google, we send one or more cookies to your computer or other device. We use cookies to improve the quality of our service, including for storing user preferences, improving search results and ad selection, and tracking user trends, such as how people search. Google also uses cookies in its advertising services to help advertisers and publishers serve and manage ads across the web and on Google services."

  3. @Ian Ray:  For the latest on the Google “Admosphere”  topic see  I see from your link that Google users have the onus to learn how to turn off ads whereas Microsoft online services customers have no such concerns.  

  4. SR says:

    This article is absolutely misleading. Have you heard of filters and labels in Gmail? You can create the same set of rules to manage your inbox

  5. If you aren't convinced, check this out:

    E-totalitarianism at Google:

  6. JoeTierney says:


    Are you guys even trying?

    You can't just lie to people and call it "marketing". You're either lying in this post or completely ignorant of what you're competing against. These exact filtering options have been available in Gmail for 5+ years and people actually use them because they're not buried under 10,000 menu options, ribbons, or whatever you're calling bloatware these days.  

    Microsoft's customer is bureaucracy. Old, lazy bureaucracy.  

  7. Bob Hyatt says:

    @ Joe

    "You can't just lie to people and call it "marketing"."

    You mean like "Do no evil"?

  8. Dave says:

    Clever title, perhaps said better by Andrew Brown, regarding Facebook?  "We are its product, not its customers"

  9. Ben Overmyer says:

    Your information is accurate enough, but I'm not so sure about your conclusions.

    In the end, I am not concerned with what Microsoft and Google want. I am only concerned with how I can best leverage the technology available to reach the desired end.

    I use a mix of Microsoft and Google products ("product" in this case referring to something created by the company in question) to serve my needs. I don't need to pick one or the other.

  10. Russ says:

    @ Tony please research your facts fully first, you may have no issue with misleading people but i object to it!

    Taken from

    Google Apps for Edu has No advertising to students, faculty, or staff

    We offer Google Apps for Education to schools for free. It's also completely ad-free -- which means your school's content is not processed by Google's advertising systems.

  11. Ian Ray says:

    @Tony Tai

    "(Note that there is no ad-related scanning or processing in Google Apps for Education or Business with ads disabled)"

    You are confusing the business and the consumer versions. You made a big deal out of it here when it was false information and again wrote about it later when it was still false.

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