Google gave itself superpowers with sneak change to Gmail's mobile settings

By James Robinson , written on April 4, 2014

From The News Desk

Google made itself unstoppable last month and it took us all weeks to notice.

As reported yesterdaydiscovered in the fine print of a nearly month old update to its Gmail app was that Google now supports automatic sign-in across all Apple devices running iOS 7.0 and up (so, 85 percent of iPhone users). Log in to Maps, YouTube, Drive, Gmail or whatever your Google app of choice is - across both iPhone and iPad - and you’re now logged in to everything. It’s a mobile version of its ‘one login’ move pulled on desktops in 2012. Supposedly convenient for you, but really, really convenient for Google. The Gmail app now supports background refresh too, so even if you’re not using it directly, it’s still pulling in all of your emails. Google doesn't need a social media network anymore, because it already knows what you ate for breakfast.

In digital advertising, context is the holy grail. Marketers worked out how to retarget ads to us long ago based on what we’ve looked at on the Internet, but they can’t ever know why you looked to begin with. Subsequently, most of the advertising I see on the Internet is for companies I’ve written stories about.

Mobile devices are the mother load of contextual data about us. We take them with us everywhere. We plug our destinations into Google Maps, watch YouTube clips on the train, edit documents remotely, run all of our email through them, and search out every inane thought and query. Within that, is a real time blueprint of our social circle, professional lives, personal interests and physical movements.

Two obstacles have stood in the way of Google really taking this potential for a spin. We spend 86 percent of our time inside apps, so if we’re not logged in to every Google service we use (I have five Google apps on my iPhone) information about us fritters away uselessly, siloed inside them. If we then don’t visit those apps - I have Gmail on my phone but use Mail - this information about us is lost again. By quietly logging us into all of our Google services, on all of our Apple devices, Google has a seamless fingerprint of what we see and when.

This has applications both current and futuristic. No ad impression is out of sight now. There’s nothing it can’t credit. If you see a video before a YouTube clip on mobile and then click on a search ad two days later, it knows.

In the future, if we abandon desktop computing for the mobile web entirely, Google’s unaffected in its quest to microtarget us with ads (or hey, surveil us). The more Google knows about us and the more certainty it has to match ads to that knowledge, the more it banks for each impression. Maybe you’re searching for computers and it can say with certainty that you work in IT for a company upgrading its office. Or you’re looking for restaurants and, drawing in Maps data, it can send you ads based on where you’ve been and where in the city you are searching from. Google has made it much easier now to take what it already knows about you, against what you're currently looking for, and throw ads into the mix.

People talk doomsday scenarios for Google because they say that more and more impressions are being delivered through mobile and Google right now is getting less money for each ad there. Through one small tweak in its system Google just set itself up to amplify the future value of each mobile ad massively. An already powerful company just gave itself superpowers.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]