What does Google Maps ‘incognito mode’ mean for businesses?

Google recently announced Android users will have the option to do incognito searches on Google Maps starting this month with iOS to follow soon. When users activate mode, they can navigate Google Maps without having their activity saved on their Google accounts – just as Google Search’s incognito mode works.

For people wanting to protect their privacy while they use Google Maps for wayfinding, incognito mode should prove to be useful. Once the incognito mode is activated, Google won’t be able to offer personalized recommendations such as restaurants or things to do based on their usage history.

Should businesses that have diligently built up their location information on Google Maps be worried that incognito mode will hurt their visibility in Google Maps to search?

I’d suggest business owners not see incognito mode is a threat but more of a “cover the bases” response to a post-GDPR heightened interest in privacy that has increasingly defined the technology industry. As Google stated in a blog post, incognito mode is one in a series of actions Google is taking to give users more control over their own privacy.

But offering the option doesn’t mean people are going to take advantage of it. It’s estimated that only 35 percent of internet users use incognito mode on various web browsers, and the percentage has remained steady over the years. DuckDuckGo, the search platform that protects users’ privacy, hosted 9 billion searches in 2018 compared to one trillion on Google.

What is likely happening is that Google Maps remains largely unchartered territory for its advertising products and Google is priming the market for more ambitious advertising products. Why? Because Google needs to defend its advertising business from the surging Amazon Advertising threat and the ongoing competition from Facebook. Incognito mode feels like a safe harbor move so Google’s PR team will be able to counter negative reactions from media with statements about taking user’s privacy very seriously and regularly releasing features that enable users to opt-out of advertising like this should they so choose.

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Of course, all the major tech firms are pushing privacy now because they need to. Apple, which has always touted its privacy controls as a competitive advantage, now asks users if they want to opt-in and share location information with makers. (This new feature is coming with iOS 13.) As a result, users will be able to opt-out when a local merchant wants to track a person’s location on their when the person is in close proximity to the business.

My advice to businesses is to keep an eye on how Google strikes the delicate balance between consumer privacy and ad personalization. Don’t let features such as incognito mode throw you. Let consumer behavior speak for itself.

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