Reflections on the frustratingly user-hostile motivations behind Google’s unified user accounts

“If it’s free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

–Everyone on the Internet

As I’ve written about several times on this blog, my 11-year-old son did an informal internship with us at Room 34 this summer. Part of the process of getting him set up as a part of the business was giving him his own email address.

We use Gmail (as part of Google Apps for Business) for our email. As such, creating an account for him on our email domain essentially created a Google user account for him, because Google has, of course, bundled all of their services together under a single login: Gmail, YouTube, Google+ (which no one uses), etc. Sounds convenient, right? Sure, but…

A couple of weeks ago, unbeknownst to me (go ahead and judge my parenting now), my son discovered that with his mail login he was able to log into YouTube as well. We have made it clear to him in the past that (legally) you have to be 13 to get a YouTube account, and that we had no intention of helping him circumvent that. But, kids being kids, he tried to take advantage of this back door he had discovered.

Problem is, YouTube asked for his birthdate. And he gave it. His real birthdate.

Nope! said YouTube, and his account was suspended. But not just his YouTube account. His entire Google account. Suddenly we found he couldn’t log into his email. I went into our Google Apps for Business account to manage the domain, and I discovered, to my supreme annoyance and frustration, that when a user account is “suspended” it really is suspended — it’s in a strange state of semi-existence. It can’t be used, but it also can’t be deleted, even by a domain administrator. So now his email address — his email address on my business domain name, not “” — is entirely untouchable.

It’s no surprise that we are Google’s product. A customer is a person or company who pays for products or services rendered. Google’s advertisers are their customers, and our attention is the product they are selling.

As a result, Google collects enormous amounts of data about its users. It tracks as much of our activity across all realms of the Internet as possible. That’s why we are a valuable product to their customers — the advertisers. The more information Google collects about us, the more valuable we become as targets for advertising. And all of that data collection is why Google is required to comply with the federal law regarding collection of information about people under the age of 13 on the Internet. Therefore, my 11-year-old son not only can’t have a YouTube account, but he can’t have an email address that is connected to Gmail, because a Google account is a Google account, period.

On a basic level this is a major inconvenience to me and to my son for our purposes of getting him experience working on the Internet. But on a much deeper level, it is more profoundly disturbing for its privacy implications.

As a web developer, I work often with Google Analytics. I help our clients set it up on their websites. I even use it on my own sites (including this one). It’s great to see where your traffic is coming from, which parts of your site are or aren’t getting traffic, which devices and browsers your visitors are using, etc.

But remember, Google isn’t just collecting that data for your benefit. They’re collecting all of that and much more for their own purposes, far beyond what they even make available to site owners on Google Analytics.

Google has created a scenario through Gmail and YouTube (and, I suppose, Google+) where a large percentage of Internet users are logged into Google at all times, with cookies stored in their browsers. Combine that with Google Analytics being installed on a large percentage of websites around the world, and Google knows that you are visiting all of those sites. You may not be providing the sites you’re visiting with any of your information, and they can’t read Google’s cookies themselves, but they’re pulling in a little piece of Google on every page load, and that piece of Google can read the Google cookies on your computer, identifying not just a computer with your same OS and web browser, connecting from your specific IP address, but you, the logged-in Google user.

What are they doing with that information? And what might someone else do with that information?

I do not like this, not one bit. And yet I still happily use these Google services. And you probably do too.

State of browser/OS/device usage on Underdog of Perfection, June 2012

I just had a look at my Google Analytics stats for this site. I made some interesting observations.

First, I saw iOS, iPhone and iPad showing up as separate devices. I wondered if iOS was a composite of both, but I realized Google was actually counting them separately. Looking at the daily stats it was clear that they made this switch on May 29, where before that date iPhone and iPad were being reported, and afterward it was just iOS. I’m not sure why they did that, but I am sure there was a very deliberate reason behind it.

Anyway, uncovering this switch was not relevant to my data observations, so I changed the date range to only encompass dates after the switch, June 1 to 20.

Here’s what I found:

True, I am a Mac user, and have for a long time favored Safari (although I recently switched my default browser to Chrome). But I don’t really spend that much time admiring my own work here on the blog. (Yes… not that much time.) So I don’t think my own activity skews the data here too much.

Do I then think this reflects the Internet as a whole? Absolutely not. I’ve learned over time that most of the people visiting my blog are stumbling upon specific posts based on a Google search, and these are almost always posts that are about diagnosing and fixing particular Mac-related problems. So, Safari’s dominance is logical (especially if Mobile Safari for iOS is lumped in here, which I have to assume is the case).

It’s nice to see Internet Explorer under 10%. And that’s all versions of Internet Explorer. But… what the heck is RockMelt? Yes, I am asking the two of you who use it.

Yes, even despite my blatant and unrepentant Apple bias, Windows still slightly edges out Mac in the stats. Interesting, then, that Safari is the most popular browser, since I suspect there are even fewer Windows Safari users than there are RockMelt users. But of course, we’re back to iOS. If you combine Mac and iOS, the total is well above that for Windows, and explains Safari’s #1 spot on the browser list.

Among mobile operating systems, iOS demonstrates a Windows-in-the-late-’90s level dominance. This despite the fact that Android famously holds greater market share in the US. Yes, my content will naturally skew my stats Apple-ward, but this data also, I think, reinforces the idea that iOS users actually use the web a lot more than Android users do.

BlackBerry and Nokia… how cute. Where’s Windows Phone?

And finally, we have mobile screen resolution. Now that Google doesn’t separate iPhone and iPad anymore, this is pretty much the way to distinguish between them in the stats. These resolutions are not the actual resolution of the screens but the pixel-doubled effective resolution used in the web browsers on Retina Display devices. 320×480 is the iPhone (even though the iPhone 4 and 4S have 640×960 screens), and 768×1024 is the iPad (even though the new iPad has a 1536×2048 display).

0x0? Really?

What I think is most significant here though is not the iPhone/iPad split at all, interesting as it is. It’s the fact that once you get past those, there’s no standard whatsoever on Android. That’s something to remember for those of us working on Responsive Web Design.

Fun with site usage stats, part two

Back in February, I wrote about web browser usage by visitors to my site. Some of the discussion over my recent redesign has prompted me to do it again. Here we go!

Web Browsers


Compare to last time: Firefox has jumped from 34% to 47%. That gain has come at the expense of both Safari and IE, which have dropped from 33% to 27% and from 28% to 17%, respectively. (Note, of course, that I’m rounding the actual percentages to whole numbers because talking about “16.88%” makes me feel like Spock on Star Trek, and I’m enough of a geek without that.)

Also worth noting: Chrome. It is stuck in fourth place, but its share has jumped by 4.1% from 1.44% to 5.54%. (OK, in this instance I needed to Spock it up a bit.)

Operating Systems


Once again, as a Mac user who also (unfortunately, despite my feeble efforts at self-promotion) represents a hugely disproportionate amount of the total traffic, I’m skewing the results here a bit. Still, I have not significantly altered my own usage of the site since February, but in that time Windows has nonetheless dropped from 56% to just under 50% of my total traffic, while the Mac has gone from 29% to 43%. Interestingly, in February, iPhone/iPod represented over 12% of the traffic but now they’re just over 4%. Linux has stayed pretty even, in between 2 and 3%.

OS/Browser Combinations


In February, IE/Windows was the dominant combination, at 28%. Now it has dropped to fourth place, at 17%. Firefox/Windows has gone from #2 to the top spot, even though it just inched up from 25% to 26%. Safari/Mac and Firefox/Mac each went up a spot as well, moving into second and third, and going from 21% to 24% and from 8% to 18%, respectively.


This is far too small and skewed a sample to say a whole lot about trends on the Internet as a whole, but what I’m seeing here overall is that Mac usage vs. Windows is up, and Firefox usage vs. anything else is also way up. Specifically I’m seeing a significant surge in Firefox/Mac… which may suggest, I suppose, that I have been visiting the site a lot more lately than I did in February. Or maybe not.

It’s also worthwhile to look at the raw total numbers in the traffic. In the time between then and now I’ve split up into a number of separate sites. The totals back in February were across the board on; for October we’re looking at stats strictly from The date range is the same: 30 days. (The original data was from January 19 to February 18; the new data is from September 20 to October 20.) Back in February, the data I analyzed represented 2,845 unique visits to my site. This month’s data represents 3,810 visits, an increase of 965, or 34%. Since the old stats included visits to a lot of pages that are now parts of other sites, the increase in blog traffic is even greater. So while it’s probably true that I’ve been spending more time looking at the blog myself in the past month, vs. February (considering I just did a redesign this weekend), the majority of the traffic increase is most likely not from me. In fact, it’s probably quite likely that my own percentage of the total traffic is quite a bit less than it was in February. Traffic here spiked on October 13-14, when I posted a reply to Derek Powazek’s blog on SEO — visits to that single page, just on October 13, represent more than 10% of the total traffic the entire site saw all month.

Let’s take a look at the OS/browser breakdown for just that one day, October 13, 2009:


The traffic from this one date was likely responsible for some overall skewing of the totals. Derek Powacek’s blog appeals most strongly to Mac users, which would explain why the Mac/Safari combination is in the top spot (Safari being far more popular in general on Macs than Firefox, for the same reason IE dominates Windows — it comes with the OS).

Lessons to be learned? Well, if I want traffic, I should write about SEO. The SEO bots (both human and software) seem to love it. But beyond that, I think there probably is some valid evidence here that there’s some real movement in the directions of both Mac and Firefox. Something that sits just fine with me!

Final Thought

What’s the deal with this “Mozilla Compatible Agent” on iPhone and iPod? I haven’t seen that before, but I assume it’s one of two things:

1. A Mozilla-derived alternative to Mobile Safari, available only on “jailbroken” iPhones.
2. An embedded client in an app like Facebook, which allows you to view web pages without leaving the app.

I’m inclined to guess that #1 is correct. I’d be surprised if any Apple-approved apps were running a Mozilla-based web browser; it seems it would be far easier and more logical to develop legit apps using the official WebKit/Mobile Safari engine. I haven’t seen any hard numbers (nor do I think it would be possible to obtain them) on the percentage of iPhones in use that are jailbroken, but if this assumption is correct, and we can assume that the ratio of “Mozilla Compatible Agent” to Safari on the iPhone/iPod platform represents at least the percentage of iPhones that are jailbroken (since I’d assume some jailbroken iPhone users still use Mobile Safari), then the numbers are staggering indeed.

However… given the fact that over 8% of the total traffic on October 13 came from this user agent, and I myself visited the site numerous times on that day from my (non-jailbroken) iPhone, to monitor and respond to comments, I suspect a much more innocuous explanation. But a brief yet concerted effort to find an explanation on Google turns up nothing. Anyone in-the-know out there care to shed some light on the situation?

A shout out to my international visitors, or at least their automaton surrogates

It’s been fun to study the data collected by Google Analytics about visitors to my site. It’s not terribly surprising when looking at the world map that the United States is dark green and all of the rest of the countries are either light gray (no visits) or very pale green (a few visits). Frankly, I’m quite surprised though that most of the countries are the pale green. Pretty much the only gray on the map is the majority of Africa (all but six countries), the cluster of former Soviet republics between Russia and Pakistan, Mongolia, a couple of smaller South American countries, and, vastly over-represented by Google’s use of Mercator projection, Greenland.

That’s pretty amazing. Nearly 2,500 (68%) of the slightly more than 3,700 visits my site received in the last month were from the United States, with the fairly obvious (for language reasons, if nothing else) U.K. and Canada following at 200 (5%) and 160 (4%) visits, respectively, and Australia in fifth place with 63 visits.

Among non-Anglophone nations, France was first, and fourth overall. Again, not terribly surprising. What is surprising is the sixth-place country: Poland, ahead of Germany by 10 visits. I’ve been to Poland. I enjoyed my visit; it’s a fine place; but I just didn’t expect much site traffic from there. Brazil, Italy and Spain round out the top ten countries with a combined total of 120 visits.


Looking at the top ten cities was even more surprising, to some extent. Well, OK, the top five cities were not surprising at all: Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, London and San Francisco. (I guess London was a little surprising, as the fourth most frequent source of visitors to my site. But, you know, it’s a big city.)

It was cities number eight and nine that really surprised me: La Victoria, Peru and Kissimmee, Florida. What? Well, OK. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kissimmee visits were entirely due to this, but I’m at a loss as to what it might be about my site that is so uniquely appealing to the residents of a district in Lima. If you live in Peru, please share!

No one city jumps out from Poland in the same way. My popularity there is far broader! But no more easily explained.


Sadly, though, all of this enthusiasm over my burgeoning international popularity fizzled when I took a close look at the stats for a particular country: China. I had a mere 7 visits from the world’s most populous nation. But given that country’s reported restrictions on access to the Internet, the low number is not so surprising. What is revealing, though, is the duration of the visits. All but one of them were for precisely the same amount of time: 0 seconds. One determined soul in Shanghai did actually spend 19 minutes on 3 of my pages, but the rest were blips too small to measure. Which suggests to me that either Chinese web surfers are experts at frightfully clicking instantly away from questionable online subject matter, or these visits were not from humans at all, but spider bots.

I suspect if I were to dig deeper into these international visits (as well as some in the U.S., particularly from San Francisco), I would find that many if not most of them are from search engine spiders simply undertaking the thankless task of indexing my site for the benefit of Internet users in their countries who are thoroughly indifferent to my unengaging drivel.