Studying a study

[A couple things to note: 1. This is a purely personal blog post--like other blogs posts I do, I haven't run it by anyone else at Google. 2. I'm writing it quickly because I have a lot of work to do. If I get something wrong, please let me know and I'll correct it.]

This morning I saw an article in the New York Times with the headline Two-Thirds of Americans Object to Online Tracking:

ABOUT two-thirds of Americans object to online tracking by advertisers — and that number rises once they learn the different ways marketers are following their online movements, according to a new survey from professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley.

So naturally I clicked to see who the co-authors were. One of the study’s co-authors was Chris Jay Hoofnagle. Hoofnagle has served as the Senior Counsel and Director of the West Coast Office
of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
. You haven’t heard of EPIC? EPIC was the group that in 2004 argued that Gmail should be shut down: “In a letter sent to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer on Monday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center argued that Gmail must be shut down because it ‘represents an unprecedented invasion into the sanctity of private communications.’ ”

I can guess what you’re saying. “That was five years ago. People didn’t know then how useful Gmail was going to be.” Okay, then did you know that EPIC lobbied the government to shut down Google Apps earlier this year? Here’s the article from March 2009:

A privacy advocacy group has asked the Federal Trade Commission to pull the plug on Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and the company’s other Web apps until government-approved “safeguards are verifiably established.”

If the FTC grants the request, hundreds of millions of Internet users would be unable to access their e-mail or documents until the agency’s formidable collection of lawyers in Washington, D.C., became satisfied with the revised applications. The outage would extend to businesses that pay for access to Google Apps.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center submitted the far-reaching request to the FTC in a letter from its director, Marc Rotenberg, on Tuesday.

Most people know that the choice of questions in an study can make a huge difference to the outcome. To fully inform the people who read the study, do I wish Chris Jay Hoofnagle had mentioned his connection to EPIC in the paper’s bio section? Yeah, I kinda do. At least when I checked Techmeme, not a single story mentioned Hoofnagle as a Principal Investigator on the grant and co-author on the study, or Hoofnagle’s connections with EPIC.

I’m sure that EPIC has done plenty of fine work to improve privacy on the web. I certainly disagree with some of their opinions: EPIC may have wanted to shut down Gmail five years ago and wanted to shut down Google Apps earlier this year, but I believe that would be a bad idea. I don’t think a majority of people want their Gmail or Google Apps accounts shut down by the government. And maybe this most recent study will be received as completely impartial–but I wish that Hoofnagle’s connections to EPIC had been disclosed in the bio section.

Don’t get me wrong. I welcome criticism of Google (or other companies’ practices) from all corners of the web. From that criticism it’s important to look for ways to improve. People love (and hate) Google enough to give us passionate criticism, and I truly appreciate the feedback. It’s when Google’s features and products are greeted with indifference or apathy that I’ll really be worried.

Google doesn’t use the keywords meta tag in web search

We went ahead and did this post on the official Google webmaster blog to make it super official, but I wanted to echo the point here as well: Google does not use the keywords meta tag in our web search.

To this day, you still see courts mistakenly believe that meta tags occupy a pivotal role in search rankings. We wanted to debunk that misconception, at least as it regards to Google. Google uses over two hundred signals in our web search rankings, but the keywords meta tag is not currently one of them, and I don’t believe it will be.

In addition to the official blog post, we made a video as well:

I hope this clarifies that the keywords meta tag is not something that you need to worry about, or at least not in Google.

How to Unlock the Amazing Secret of Unlimited Productivity

All of us could use some help increasing our productivity. So I’m going to share one of my best productivity secrets. This secret can literally CHANGE YOUR LIFE!!! Are you ready?

Step 1. Buy a productivity book.

Any productivity book will do. I use a book called “The Now Habit.” It doesn’t matter what book you order though, because you probably won’t read it. You can use any random “increase your productivity” book.

Step 2. Look at the productivity book and tell yourself, “If I don’t get X done, I’m going to have to read that productivity book.”

That’s it. As far as I can discern, staring at the cover of a productivity book gives you almost as much of a motivational boost as actually reading the book. And if staring at the cover doesn’t work, then tell yourself the punishment for not getting your work done is that you’ll have to read that dang productivity book. Pretty soon you’ll be off and working. Enjoy. :)

Looking for good Yahoo search engineers

I was talking to an excellent new Googler that joined from Yahoo this week, and that reminded me that I meant to do this post a little while ago. So I’ll keep this post short and sweet: if you’re an excellent Yahoo engineer with solid experience in search, Google is hiring. If you want to apply for a Software Engineer position search in Mountain View, use this job page and the application will make it to the right recruiters. Thanks!

Update 9/17/2009: We made a special “Search Software Engineer” position that you can use to apply.

Bad Experience with U.S. Airways Dividend Miles

Update: See the bottom of this post for newer information.

I’ve been having an ongoing bad experience with U.S. Airways over their Dividend Miles. I’d accumulated about 15,000 miles with them and the miles were about to expire. I didn’t have any trips coming up, so I looked for a way to redeem those frequent flyer miles before they expired. U.S. Airways provided a way to subscribe to magazine and newspapers using miles — great! I signed up to get a bunch of magazines and dutifully waited the several weeks that it would take for magazines to start showing up. But instead of newspapers and magazines, I started to get little white post cards back in the mail. The first one let me know that I wouldn’t be getting The Economist:

Subscription denied!

Bummer. Then I found out that I wouldn’t be getting the Wall Street Journal:

Subscription denied!

Bigger bummer. But after a while, I started to notice a trend. See if you can tell what the trend was:

Subscription denied!

Doh!

Subscription denied!

Doh!

Subscription denied!

Doh!

Subscription denied!

Doh!

Subscription denied!

Doh!

Subscription denied!

Doh!

That’s right — not a single magazine or newpaper showed up. Instead, eight different times I was told that an “overwhelming response” meant that title wasn’t available.

So where do things stand now? Well, in the 4-10 weeks that I had to wait for the subscriptions to start, those 15,000 frequent flier miles expired. I can’t try to subscribe to any other magazines or even donate the miles to charity at this point.

To add a cherry on top, I keep getting emails from U.S. Airways, which apparently can’t understand why I would let my miles expire and would be happy to sign me up for a credit card to resurrect those miles from the dead:

Sign up for a US Airways credit card!

You know what, U.S. Airways? Just keep the miles. Or better yet, if anyone from the U.S. Airways Dividend Miles program sees this post and wants to do something nice, please donate those miles to charity.

If you fly with U.S. Airways, be aware that redeeming miles for magazine/newspaper subscriptions might not work as well as you’d like. And will I be avoiding 321mags.com (which now redirects to magazineoutlet.com) in the future? Yes, I will be avoiding them. :)

Update: Some new developments have happened since I wrote this blog post. US Airways wrote the day after I blogged to apologize for a bad experience, said that they’d investigate what happened, and then they reinstated the miles. That’s about as much as I could ask for, and I appreciate their response. I donated the miles to charity.

A couple days later, the vendor for the “Magazines for Miles” program contacted me. They said that when they verified the zip code for the magazines with the zip code on file with the airline, it didn’t match, so the order was sent to the airline for verification. When US Airways confirmed my address, the vendor re-processed the order. But then by the time the order reached US Airways for decrementing, the miles had already expired, so the order was cancelled. Due to a different glitch, the cancellation notice implied that the magazine inventory wasn’t available. The magazine vendor offered to send the magazines now, but I declined. I’d already donated the miles to charity and that’s enough to resolve the situation in my mind.

As a software engineer, I can easily imagine this happening. I guess the takeaway as a flier would be to use your miles before they get too close to expiring.

css.php