Google to feature user recommendations in ads

Users will be able to opt out of Google featuring their names and photos in shared endorsements

Google will feature users in advertisements that run on its suite of websites when those users recommend products or stores.

Starting Nov. 11, Google ads will begin to feature recommendations that users made on a Google site, although people will be able to opt out of appearing in ads, the company said Friday. Google's move follows a similar experiment by competitor Facebook, but the social-networking site reached an August settlement in a privacy lawsuit for its sponsored stories feature after complaints that it was misappropriating user names or likenesses to promote products and services.

Friends of Google Plus users have already been able to see their so-called +1 recommendations, but the new program will expand how recommendations by users of Google's sites are shared, the company said in a terms of service update.

"We want to give you --- and your friends and connections --- the most useful information," Google said in the update. "Feedback from people you know can save you time and improve results for you and your friends across all Google services, including Search, Maps, Play and in advertising."

For example, if a user gives a +1 to a bakery, that recommendation may be featured in an ad that the bakery runs on Google sites, the company said. A representative declined to give more details about the new ads, called shared endorsements.

Users, however, will have the option to prohibit Google from sharing their names and photos in the shared endorsements. Google users under age 18 won't be included in the program.

Privacy advocates questioned the new policy.

"This just proves again that Google doesn't care about what the users want or their privacy, but rather only about making a buck," said John Simpson, a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog. The option of not participating "certainly won't be the default. If Google carried about giving users control, you would have to opt in to letting them sell your endorsements, not opt out."

Google's expansion of user data collection raises privacy concerns, added Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

"For Google, it recognizes that it's economic future depends on its ability to link an exposure to an ad or a sponsored product (through search, web and mobile advertising) and the direct impact it has in terms of purchase," he said. "The company recognizes that today, the best way to deliver a commercial pitch is to have it come from someone's friend. Facebook, Google and others are perversely turning their online users into digital pitchmen."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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