When Google first launched Gmail on April 1st, 2004, many people thought it was an April Fools’ joke. The company best known for its search engine was offering 1GB of email storage at a time when competitors offered just a few megabytes.

But Google had a strategy: the company would automatically scan your email messages in order to display relevant advertising. Privacy advocates were not pleased… but that didn’t stop more than a billion users from signing up for Gmail.

13 years later, Google has announced that later this year it will to stop scanning email for ad personalization.


The company will continue to show ads in the Gmail user interface, but they’ll be “based on users’ settings.”

Google says the move away from email scanning brings Gmail advertising more in line with the way ads are managed in other Google apps and services.

That means you can opt out of ad personalization altogether, or if you opt in you can choose from a list of “topics you like” and “topics you don’t like” ranging from “Air Travel” to “Xbox.”

While these topics aren’t selected from automatic scans of your inbox, they are based on your behavior: Google comes up with categories based on things like your Google searches and interactions with YouTube videos.

Paying G Suite customers continue to get an ad-free experience.

Oh, and one thing to keep in mind: while Google isn’t scanning your email for advertising purposes anymore, the company is still scanning your email for other reasons. That’s how it can apply filters, automatically detect spam, and enable features such as smart replies or adding upcoming travel plans to your Google Calendar.

via 9to5Google


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15 replies on “Google to stop scanning Gmail for ad personalization”

  1. Do paying G Suite customers have the option of stopping scanning completely?

    1. G Suite for Education has some additional protections so student data isn’t scanned for advertising. I don’t think other editions have similar provisions.

  2. Read something interesting in the Extreme Tech article about the Google change. The order came from the Google Cloud division – the one in charge of managing G Suite – arguing that it will help make the Gmail experience more consistent across free and paid accounts, and hence building up more trust in the email system.

    If that’s the case, it probably means that G Suite has become more important to Google’s bottom line than the benefit of mining people’s emails for ad-related information. Mind you, the publicity behind the change (especially with regard to EU regulations) probably doesn’t hurt,

  3. I moved to gmail for the free pop3 access, otherwise I would have stayed with yahoo email. I used myrealbox for a while too (when Yahoo started charging for POP3 and before gmail offered it). I hate being dependent on a service (free or paid) to hold my data… it’s not the service company, it’s the hackers that could lock the data up, or the disgruntled admin who erases all the disks.

    1. It’s a fair concern, but is it a realistic one? Has Google had a problem with hackers or disgruntled admins in Gmail?

    2. I very much doubt a single disgruntled Google employee would have the ability to lock or destroy your Gmail account *and* make it unrecoverable. Not worth worrying about.

      As for hacking, the most likely chance of that happening is through someone hacking the computer you access your email from or from hacking your email password. Certainly in the high profile case I’ve heard of, that’s what happened. I guess under those circumstances, having a local backup of your emails is not a bad idea, though. Google doesn’t make is easy for customers who have been hacked to have their data restored. Chances of needing the back up should be pretty low if your personal security practices are good, though.

      1. I have at least one off-site/off-line backup. Maybe Google has one of these too. My son’s school google cloud account was locked for 2 days… gmail was off-line for that time for all the kids in the district. Maybe Google is more vulnerable to services being off-line than actual data loss. No one is perfect, but with 2 separate backups I always have access to my data.

        1. I’ve been working with Google Apps for Education/G Suite for Education for years now, and I haven’t heard of any major (2 day!) outages. And of the 30+ domains I help run, I don’t think we’ve run into any issue like that. I blame the school admins, who probably aren’t running a tight ship there.

          That’s still a far cry from your personal account losing data. Google apparently does keep at least server-level backups, from what I’ve read.

        2. This is what Google says: “Data is replicated multiple times across Google’s clustered active servers so that, in the case of a machine failure, data will still be accessible through another system. We also replicate data to secondary data centers to ensure protection from data center failures.”

          In terms of off-line, then yeah, but more if there is an issue with a specific account, like the example you mention, rather than a failure at a data center — again, multiple redundancy takes care of that unless their is a huge outage is across the network. But sure, if Google locks an account for some reason, you’re out of luck.

          The wife of a well-known journalist had her Gmail account hacked a few years ago, and after the hacker had finished with it, deleted everything. She lost years of contact information and business correspondence. Google was able to restore everything, but only after her husband had used his contacts within Google to get them to do it, and he expressed concern that normal users would not be so lucky.

  4. “While these topics aren’t selected from automatic scans of your inbox, they are based on your behavior: Google comes up with categories based on things like your Google searches and interactions with YouTube videos.”

    I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. And I mean that both in the privacy sense, and the ad relevance sense.

    As I have stated many times on this site, my chief complaint with ads has been their utter irrelevance to me. Indeed, disabling the blockers here shows me a smoking pipe, some sort of desk doodad, car insurance, and some Target ad, none of which I am even remotely interested in. I haven’t been to Target in years since it opened in town, never purchased anything there. And yet, Google does know my browsing history, my location via Maps timeline, and for now, the contents of my emails. What has gone wrong here?

    1. Effective personalized ads seem to be tough to pull off. Most of the examples I get are too “on the nose” — you’ve been looking into, say, bread making machines, and then for the next week all you see is ads for bread making machines. That’s more likely to irritate than attract people.

      I guess Google should have more than enough data to know what works, and if mining emails was a major success in targeting ads, I suspect they wouldn’t be ditching it now. It’s even possible that overall, successfully targeted ads only incrementally add to their overall ad revenue.

      1. Right, the on the nose ads seem to evidence an extremely naive approach to personalizing ads. But what does that mean for the bucketloads of data they have if it means relatively marginal returns? Does this mean there’s an advertising bubble ready to burst and take down big advertisers like Google and Facebook, once companies realize the added value isn’t there, and consumers start to realize their data is more valuable than the null UX improvements?

        1. Frankly, I doubt enough consumers will ever care about their personal data being used for targeting ads to make a difference. I certainly don’t care. Gmail and the many other Google services I get to use for free are way too valuable for me to care, and it’s just not worth the time/effort/money to start using non-ad targeting solutions. (And before someone starts suggesting easy alternatives, I already know what they are, and even if it took me less than a day to switch, it’s still not worth it for me.)

          As for the advertisers — targeted ads is just part of the value proposition they offer. They have the reach, they have the metrics, they have the volume, they have the network, and so on. Tough not to outsource all your online advertising with all that on offer.

          1. I think many people do care, as evidenced by the growing number of people using adblockers. A number of those people do it for privacy reasons, but it has the effect of making advertising more difficult, regardless of the reason one uses a blocker. And if it’s more difficult, the more effort you should probably be putting towards stronger conversion rates, hence better ad targeting.

            They seem to have the motivation to do targeting well. They claim to have cool algorithms to target customers well. But I’m not seeing it.

          2. Ad blocking is primarily used because many of the ads are annoying, intrusive, or even dangerous, and people are fed up of that. I doubt even 10% of ad block users would say privacy was the major reason for installing it

            Of course some people care, but as I said, not enough do or will.

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