Google Gets Fined Facebook Improves Privacy

Can we learn something about website marketing from recent headlines? We’ll take a quick look at two stories that hit the news this week to find out. First up, Google pays a settlement for drug ads that led to illegal Canadian pharmaceutical sales; next, we’ll look at Facebook’s improvements to its privacy controls.

Google’s settlement with the U.S. Justice Department will cost the company $500 million. The search giant acknowledged that its ads improperly helped Canadian online pharmacies to sell controlled drugs in the United States without requiring a prescription, as well as counterfeit drugs. The amount of the settlement wasn’t plucked out of thin air; it represents the gross revenue that Google received from the Canadian pharmacies, plus the gross revenue the pharmacies received from their sales to consumers across the border, during the period from 2003 to 2009.

The Justice Department argued that Google was liable for that sum of money because the search company let Canadian online pharmacies advertise with them via AdWords during that period, even though they knew that many prescription drugs were  being sold illegally to buyers in the United States. These controlled substances included Vicodin, oxycodone, Xanax, and others with a profound enough affect on users to require pharmacies in the United States to follow special rules and procedures in their handling – usually because such drugs are easily abused.

I can’t see either the online Canadian pharmacies or Google as innocent dupes in this case. On the other hand, I can easily imagine situations in which one or both parties find themselves breaking the law without realizing it. Is what you are trying to sell legal wherever you are trying to sell it? Is the way you’re going about advertising it, or marketing your website, legal?

You may think of this as a beginner’s mistake, but laws do change from time to time. Sometimes, whole new markets open up; consider the brand new market in New York for wedding planners catering to same sex couples, for instance. But changes in laws – or stronger enforcement of those laws – can also close markets. I’m thinking of the online gambling industry in relation to gamblers in the United States, but there are other examples. If you sell a product, you may need to preemptively refuse to ship to certain locations if you can’t prevent ads from appearing in those locations. Online wine merchants must deal with this kind of thing all the time, and they’re not the only industry affected by this. If it’s at all possible that your website marketing plans might be affected by this – and it’s likelier than you think – make sure you know the law, and act accordingly.

Now for our second story. On Tuesday, Facebook unveiled some improvements to let users share their posts, photos, and other content with exactly the people they wanted to. They’re rolling it out slowly; I can’t speak about the changes from personal experience, because they’re not available to me yet. But they represent serious improvements in the kind of control you get over data that involves you.

For example, one improved feature lets you change who can see various parts of your profile with a single click. Also, when other users tag you in a photo, you can approve the tag before it shows up on your profile rather than after. I can think of at least one picture I really wish I’d been able to do that with, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Users will even be able to change who they share something with after they’ve posted it…so you can go back to that story you told about last night’s party and shared with all of your friends, and unshare it with your mother (if you’re lucky, before she wakes up and sees it). You’ll even be able to remove content from your profile. You can check out more details here.

Even so, this is just a taste of what you can expect. Greg Stirling goes into more detail for Search Engine Land, and notes that Facebook will be rolling out supporting videos to explain all of the changes. Most of the new features seem to be intuitive, however, so for once there may not be too many problems with making Facebook work the way you want it to going forward.

Some observers think that these changes were prompted by the granularity of the privacy controls on Google Plus. It’s impossible to deny that privacy issues have plagued Facebook for a long time; the social site has received a stream of complaints from users and privacy advocates. That very fact argues in favor of Facebook’s statement to Stirling that these changes have been in the works for months and were not prompted by Google Plus’s privacy and control features. Regardless, as Stirling notes, “The thrust of all these changes is to give the user total and explicit control over what appears on his/her profile. These changes should be welcomed by all Facebook users and privacy advocates – whether or not they were motivated by Google+.”

So what can we learn about website marketing from this? First, watch your competition, and try to outdo them. That’s a business rule, not just a website marketing rule. Second, customers like choice – and they like to be in control of their data. So be sure to give them options. I’m reminded here of Outback Steakhouse’s marketing campaign to give away a million free steaks. You find out if you’re eligible by putting in your home zip code. If your local Outback restaurants have sold out of free steak, you can still get a $5 off coupon.

Finally, if you’re adding improvements and doing a marketing campaign on your website to get the word out, don’t sweat it too much if critics say you’re just doing it because your competition is doing it. Instead, put your effort into making the best improvements you can. If they’re the right thing to do, it won’t matter whether or not your competitors are doing it – and it will matter less that they got there first if you do it right. Good luck!

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