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How Google Docs became the social media of the resistance

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In the week after George Floyd’s murder, hundreds of thousands of people joined protests across the US and around the globe, demanding education, attention, and justice. But one of the key tools for organizing these protests is a surprising one: it’s not encrypted, doesn’t rely on signing in to a social network, and wasn’t even designed for this purpose. It’s Google Docs.

In just the last week, Google Docs has emerged as a way to share everything from lists of books on racism to templates for letters to family members and representatives to lists of funds and resources that are accepting donations. Shared Google Docs that anyone can view and anyone can edit, anonymously, have become a valuable tool for grassroots organizing during both the coronavirus pandemic and the police brutality protests sweeping the US. It’s not the first time. In fact, activists and campaigners have been using the word processing software for years as a more efficient and accessible protest tool than either Facebook or Twitter.

Google Docs was launched in October 2012. It quickly became popular, not only because Google email accounts were so widespread already, but also because it allows multiple users to collaborate and edit simultaneously. Microsoft Word, the incumbent, finally had a real rival.

But it has always been used for purposes beyond simple word processing. Teens have long used Google Docs as a way of exchanging notes during dull lectures, for example. More recently, during the pandemic, Google Docs were widely shared to help people deal with the stress of lockdown. Shelter-in-place orders led to a series of feel-good lists on the platform, ranging from the one the New York Times ran of activities and reporters’ thoughts (“Notes from Our Homes to Yours”) to virtual escape rooms, socially distant comedy shows, crowdsourced and collaborative crosswords, and community grocery lists for people in need.

It wasn’t until the 2016 elections, when misinformation campaigns were rampant, that the software came into its own as a political tool. Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College, used it to create a 34-page document titled “False, Misleading, Clickbaity-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.’”

Zimdars inspired a slew of political Google Docs, written by academics as ad hoc ways of campaigning for Democrats for the 2018 midterm elections. By the time the election passed, Google Docs were also being used to protest immigration bans and advance the #MeToo movement. 

Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day weekend, communities are using the software to organize. One of the most popular Google Docs to emerge in the past week is “Resources for Accountability and Actions for Black Lives,” which features clear steps people can take to support victims of police brutality. It is organized by Carlisa Johnson, a 28-year-old graduate journalism student at Georgia State University. 

Johnson created the Google Doc in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, but she had been compiling resources since the death of Ahmaud Arbery, whose murder by a father and son in February didn’t lead to arrests until video of the incident was released in May. “I’ve been doing this [sharing links for direct action] since 2014 with my own network of friends and family,” Johnson says. She’d never created a public Google Doc like this, and chose it over Facebook and Twitter because it is so accessible: “Hyperlinks are the most succinct and quickest way to access things, and you can’t do that on Facebook or Twitter. When you say ‘Contact your representative,’ a lot of people don’t know how to do that.” Direct links in the Google Doc make it much easier for people to get involved, she says.

Another viral Google Doc that emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, listing resources for protestors and organizations accepting donations, was created by an activist known as Indigo, who identifies as nonbinary and uses a pseudonym so as not to be outed to family members. Indigo said accessibility and live editing were the primary advantages of a Google Doc over social media: “It’s important to me that the people on the ground can access these materials, especially those seeking legal counsel, jail support, and bail support. This is a medium that everyone I’ve organized with uses and many others use.”

Like Johnson, Indigo had been collecting resources after Floyd’s murder—“bookmarking and emailing myself tons of links” —and found that “I just couldn’t keep up with it. It seemed like no one else could either.” Indigo was frustrated with Twitter, though: “On the off-chance you find something phenomenal, you have to retweet, like, or share it in that moment or else it’s gone forever.” Google Docs was the answer.

“What’s special about a Google Doc versus a newsfeed is its persistence and editability,” says Clay Shirky, the vice provost for educational technology at New York University. In 2008, Shirky wrote Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, detailing how the internet and social media helped shape modern protest movements. 

Shirky says that while social media has been great for publicizing movements, it’s far less efficient at creating stable shelves of information that a person can return to. What makes Google Docs especially attractive is that they are at once dynamic and static, he says. They’re editable and can be viewed simultaneously on countless screens, but they are easily shareable via tweet or post.

“People want a persistent artifact,” Shirky says. “If you are in an action-oriented network, you need an artifact to coordinate with those outside of the conversation and the platform you’re using, so you can actually go outside of the feed and do something.”

Johnson experienced that firsthand. Within days, her Google Doc had made it to actor Cole Sprouse’s Instagram stories and actress Halle Berry’s Twitter feed, multiplying its viewership.

It helps that Google Docs are fairly straightforward to access and simple to use. But anonymity is an important advantage over Twitter or Facebook. Users who click on a publicly shareable link are assigned an animal avatar, hiding their identity. “No one can put you on blast on Google Docs,” says Shirky. “Google Docs allows for a wider breadth of participation for people who are not looking to get into a high-stakes political argument in front of millions of people.” 

Google Docs isn’t the only tool that activists are using. Carrd, a platform for building one-page sites, has seen a sharp increase in protest pages like this one. AJ, the founder of Carrd ( who goes by just his initials), says that while he wasn’t expecting the site to find popularity among protesters, it makes sense. 

The advantages? “[It’s] free with relatively inexpensive upgrades, the speed and ease at which you can throw together a site, and the fact that you can more or less do it all on mobile,” he ticks off.

For both Johnson and Indigo, the overall experience of creating Google Docs has been a surprisingly positive one; Indigo does receive the occasional “nasty DM” but shrugs it off. At any given moment, anywhere between 70 and 90 people are in Johnson’s and Indigo’s documents, and both spend significant time editing and fact-checking them. 

But while Google Docs is easy to use and share, how private is it? Protesters have taken to putting their phones in airplane mode so their data and location can’t be tracked, along with covering up identifying features. Signal, which provides messaging with end-to-end encryption, has been one of the most downloaded apps of the past few weeks. Including sensitive information in a publicly viewable document might feel risky right now.

“It’s certainly a concern,” says Johnson. When she first created the document, she credited herself as “C. Johnson” to avoid being identifiable. But she spelled out her full name when she realized that she had a powerful part to play as a black woman. “Others are able to risk so much, and there’s accountability involved here,” she says, adding that privacy concerns are not as significant as the need for activism. Indigo echoes this thought: “The threat of hacking is real, especially because Google is free and not by any means encrypted. I’ve created backup documents and have taken all the precautions I can.”

Shirky says it’s a common misconception that protesters are seeking privacy from the state. “Most of them are concerned with activism, not privacy,” he says. In fact, Johnson says that for her and other activists, the goal is to disseminate as much information as accurately as possible.

“Google Docs lets me put it in one place and across social-media platforms,” she says. “Reach is what’s important at this time. A Facebook post can only go so far. An Instagram post can only go so far. But this? This is accessible. Nothing else is as immediate.”

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Google to pay $391.5 million settlement over location tracking, state AGs say

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Google to pay $391.5 million settlement over location tracking, state AGs say

Google has agreed to pay a $391.5 million settlement to 40 states to resolve accusations that it tracked people’s locations in violation of state laws, including snooping on consumers’ whereabouts even after they told the tech behemoth to bug off.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said it is time for Big Tech to recognize state laws that limit data collection efforts.

“I have been ringing the alarm bell on big tech for years, and this is why,” Mr. Landry, a Republican, said in a statement Monday. “Citizens must be able to make informed decisions about what information they release to big tech.”

The attorneys general said the investigation resulted in the largest-ever multistate privacy settlement. Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, a Democrat, said Google’s penalty is a “historic win for consumers.”

“Location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects, and there are so many reasons why a consumer may opt out of tracking,” Mr. Tong said. “Our investigation found that Google continued to collect this personal information even after consumers told them not to. That is an unacceptable invasion of consumer privacy, and a violation of state law.”

Location tracking can help tech companies sell digital ads to marketers looking to connect with consumers within their vicinity. It’s another tool in a data-gathering toolkit that generates more than $200 billion in annual ad revenue for Google, accounting for most of the profits pouring into the coffers of its corporate parent, Alphabet, which has a market value of $1.2 trillion.

The settlement is part of a series of legal challenges to Big Tech in the U.S. and around the world, which include consumer protection and antitrust lawsuits.

Though Google, based in Mountain View, California, said it fixed the problems several years ago, the company’s critics remained skeptical. State attorneys general who also have tussled with Google have questioned whether the tech company will follow through on its commitments.

The states aren’t dialing back their scrutiny of Google’s empire.

Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was filing a lawsuit over reports that Google unlawfully collected millions of Texans’ biometric data such as “voiceprints and records of face geometry.”

The states began investigating Google’s location tracking after The Associated Press reported in 2018 that Android devices and iPhones were storing location data despite the activation of privacy settings intended to prevent the company from following along.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich went after the company in May 2020. The state’s lawsuit charged that the company had defrauded its users by misleading them into believing they could keep their whereabouts private by turning off location tracking in the settings of their software.

Arizona settled its case with Google for $85 million last month. By then, attorneys general in several other states and the District of Columbia had pounced with their own lawsuits seeking to hold Google accountable.

Along with the hefty penalty, the state attorneys general said, Google must not hide key information about location tracking, must give users detailed information about the types of location tracking information Google collects, and must show additional information to people when users turn location-related account settings to “off.”

States will receive differing sums from the settlement. Mr. Landry’s office said Louisiana would receive more than $12.7 million, and Mr. Tong’s office said Connecticut would collect more than $6.5 million.

The financial penalty will not cripple Google’s business. The company raked in $69 billion in revenue for the third quarter of 2022, according to reports, yielding about $13.9 billion in profit.

Google downplayed its location-tracking tools Monday and said it changed the products at issue long ago.

“Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said in a statement.

Google product managers Marlo McGriff and David Monsees defended their company’s Search and Maps products’ usage of location information.

“Location information lets us offer you a more helpful experience when you use our products,” the two men wrote on Google’s blog. “From Google Maps’ driving directions that show you how to avoid traffic to Google Search surfacing local restaurants and letting you know how busy they are, location information helps connect experiences across Google to what’s most relevant and useful.”

The blog post touted transparency tools and auto-delete controls that Google has developed in recent years and said the private browsing Incognito mode prevents Google Maps from saving an account’s search history.

Mr. McGriff and Mr. Monsees said Google would make changes to its products as part of the settlement. The changes include simplifying the process for deleting location data, updating the method to set up an account and revamping information hubs.

“We’ll provide a new control that allows users to easily turn off their Location History and Web & App Activity settings and delete their past data in one simple flow,” Mr. McGriff and Mr. Monsees wrote. “We’ll also continue deleting Location History data for users who have not recently contributed new Location History data to their account.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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5 Tips to Boost Your Holiday Search Strategy

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With the global economic downturn, inflation, ongoing supply chain challenges, and uncertainty due to the Ukraine war, this year’s holiday shopping season promises to be very challenging. Will people be in the mood to spend despite the gloom? Or will they rein in their enthusiasm and save for the year ahead?

With these issues in mind, here are five considerations to support your search engine optimization strategy this holiday shopping season:

1. Start early.

Rising prices are likely to mean shoppers will start researching their holiday spending earlier than ever to nab the best bargains. Therefore, retailers must roll out their holiday product and category pages — and launch any promotions — sooner to ensure their pages get crawled and indexed by search engines in good time.

Some e-commerce stores manage to get their pages ranking early by updating and reusing the same section of the website for holiday content and promotions, rotating between content for Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine gifts, Fourth of July sales, etc. This approach can help you retain the momentum, links and authority you build up with Google and get your holiday pages visible and ranking quickly.

2. Make research an even bigger priority.

With all the uncertainty this year, it’s vital to use SEO research to identify the trending seasonal keywords and search phrases in your retail vertical — and then optimize content accordingly.

With tools such as Google Trends you can extract helpful insights based on the types of searches people are making. For example, with many fashion retailers now charging for product returns, will prioritizing keywords such as “free returns” get more search traction? And with money being tighter, will consumers stick with brands they trust rather than anything new — meaning brand searches might be higher?

3. Make greater use of Google Shopping.

To get the most out of their holiday spending, consumers are more likely to turn to online marketplaces such as Google Shopping as they make it easier to compare products, features and prices, as well as to identify the best deals both online and in nearby stores.

Therefore, take a combined approach which includes listing in Google Shopping and at the same time optimizing product detail pages on your e-commerce site to ensure they’re unique and provide more value than competitors’ pages. Be precise with product names on Google Shopping (e.g., do the names contain the words people are searching for?); ensure you provide all the must-have information Google requires; and set a price that’s not too far from the competition. 

4. Give other search sources the attention they deserve.

Earlier this year Google itself acknowledged that consumers — especially younger consumers — are starting to use TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites for search. In fact, research suggests 11 percent of product searches now start on TikTok and 15 percent on Instagram. Younger consumers in particular are more engaged by visual content, which may explain why they’re embracing visually focused social sites for search. So, as part of your search strategy, create and share content on popular social media sites that your target customers visit.

Similarly, with people starting their shopping searches on marketplaces such as Amazon.com, optimizing any listings you have on the site should be part of your strategy. And thankfully, the better optimized your product detail pages are for Amazon (with unique, useful content), the better they will rank on Google as well!

5. Hold paid budget for late opportunities.

The greater uncertainty and volatility this holiday season mean you must keep a close eye on shopper behavior and be ready to embrace opportunities that emerge later on. Getting high organic rankings for late promotions is always more challenging, so hold some paid search budget back to help drive traffic to those pages — via Google Ads, for example. Important keywords to include in late season search ad campaigns include “delivery before Christmas” and “same-day-delivery.” For locally targeted search ads, consider “pick up any time before Christmas.”

The prospect of a tough, unpredictable holiday shopping season means search teams must roll out seasonal SEO plans early, closely track shoppers’ behavior, and be ready to adapt as things change.

Marcus Pentzek is chief SEO consultant at Searchmetrics, the global provider of search data, software and consulting solutions.

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Google Home App Gets an Overhaul, Rolling Out Soon

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Google Home app

Google refreshes its Home app with a slew of new features after launching a new Nest gear. This makes it faster and easier to pair smart devices with Matter, adds customization and personalization options, an enhanced Nest camera experience, and better intercommunication between devices.

This revamped Home app utilizes Google’s Matter smart home standard – launching later this year – especially the Fast Pair functionality. On an Android phone, it will instantly recognize a Matter device and allow you to easily set it up, bypassing the current procedure that is often slow and difficult. Google is also updating its Nest speakers, displays, and routers – to control Matter devices better.

Google Home App New Features

  • Spaces: This feature allows you to control multiple devices in different rooms. Google has listed a few things by room: kitchen, bedroom, living room, etc., although it’s pretty limited right now. Spaces let you organize devices how you see fit. For instance, you can set up a baby monitor in one room and set a different room’s camera to focus on an area the baby often plays. With Spaces, you can categorize these two devices into one Space category called ‘Baby.’

Google Home app Spaces

  • Favorites: This one is pretty self-explanatory. It allows you to make certain gears as a favorite that you frequently use. Doing so will bring those devices into the limelight within the Google Home app for easier access. 

Google Home app

  • Media: Google adds a new media widget at the bottom of your Home feed. This will automatically determine what media is playing in your home and provide you with the appropriate controls as and when needed. There will be song controls if you listen to music on your speakers. There will be television remote controls if you’re watching TV. 

Google probably won’t roll out this Home app makeover anytime soon. But you can try it for yourself in the coming week by enrolling in the public preview, available in select areas.

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