Richard Waters Microsoft turns to advertising to poke Google

Microsoft, which often lobbies intensively behind the scenes against Google, has for the first time taken its campaign into print. It began a three-day series of adverts in US newspapers on Wednesday taking aim at Google’s latest moves to integrate its services and standardise its privacy policies.

The message: You can no longer trust Google to put its users first.

The well-timed ads follow a letter to Google from eight members of Congress last week, which in turn prompted a lengthy Google response on Tuesday.

Google has portrayed its privacy changes as a way to make its services more useful, since it will be able to take a user’s information from one service to personalise the experience in another. Its makes no mention of how the same information could also be used to target advertising more effectively.

Microsoft hasn’t missed the opportunity to play on this point: “Every data point Google collects and connects to you increases how valuable you are to an advertiser.”

But isn’t that what motivates all advertising-driven businesses online – including Microsoft? After all, Microsoft’s privacy policy is not so different from the one that Google says it will adopt on 1 March.

Frank Shaw, head of communications at the software company, doesn’t deny this, but puts it this way: “The policies aren’t very different, the practices are.” He adds: “We don’t read what you write in Hotmail and return ads on Bing based on that.”

Aren’t there instances where Microsoft does take what it knows about a user from one of its services to inform advertising on another?

Shaw ducks this issue but makes a broader point: Microsoft is less motivated to put advertisers ahead of users because its overall corporate business model (and customer relationships) are not exclusively based on advertising.

That’s true, but only up to a point. When it comes to Bing or Hotmail, the business model and relationship with the user have nothing to do with sales of Windows software or anything else. Advertising is all.

Still, whichever way you look at it, it’s not a bad idea to use Google’s public travails as an opportunity to position Microsoft as the good guy. And it shows Microsoft’s growing confidence in a range of services, from Bing to Internet Explorer, that were once put in the shade by Google, but which now stand up far better in comparison.

Update: Google responds on its Public Policy Blog to what it calls the “myths” being spread by Microsoft and others. Guess this one will run and run.