We Know Where Apple Stands On Health Data. What About Google?

health dataUsing health data for advertising purposes is a hot potato and Apple’s not touching it. The jury’s still out on Google.

Despite the upcoming release of the pulse-reading Apple Watch (available early 2015) and Apple pushing its HealthKit API with developers, advertisers won’t have any access to health data derived from related apps or devices. (Medical research and fitness management are on the table, however, as evidenced by Apple’s recently forged partnership with the Mayo Clinic.)

Google, on the other hand – it’s worth speculating.

Google released the API to Google Fit, its health-tracking platform, at the beginning of August after launching a preview of the SDK back in June at its annual developers conference. Fit gives developers the ability to store and access activity data from fitness apps and sensors on Android phones and related wearable devices.

OK, Google: What’s going to happen with the health data?

Clearly there are major FDA and FTC barriers standing in the way of monetizing health data, but of any player out there, Google would seem to be the most motivated.

“Google is an ad serving company – that is what it is and what it will always be,” said Craig Elimeliah, SVP and director of creative technology at RAPP. “It produces apps and products for the purpose of targeting those ads more precisely. Granted, heath data is a lot more sensitive than web browsing, but then again, Google does use Gmail Scanning for ad targeting, and emails are pretty sensitive in nature.”

Of course, this isn’t Google’s first time at the health rodeo. Google launched Google Health, an online personal health record system, back in 2008, but ultimately shuttered the venture in 2011. All related data was subsequently destroyed in 2013.

But this is different. Google Fit isn’t about health e-records, it’s about the collection of data points like heart rate, steps taken and temperature deterministically linked to Google’s ostensibly massive logged-in user base.

“Internet users used to be defined by the content and media they consumed, but with the Internet of things, users will be defined by what they aspire to be,” said Trueffect CMO Tim Mayer. “For example, users with wearables at the peak fitness period at the beginning of the year will be able to be targeted with different creative and by different companies based upon activity levels. If you are sustaining or falling off your fitness regimen – i.e., they can determine this by calories burned and activity metrics – you’ll be targeted for different offers, such as additional levels of success or ‘we need to get you back on the wagon.’”

The opportunity is there, but it’s hard to say what Google will do with Fit. Privacy is a concern. Or is it?

“Privacy is dead to Google and it knows that, and if they provide the right value exchange, users will give up their data and accept that Google will be mature with the data they collect to target ads that may or may not benefit the end user,” said Elimeliah, who noted that Google’s health data would only really be interesting to advertisers because it’s Google’s health data.

“The only thing advertisers would be able to do with the data … is benefit from better targeting from Google, which may or may not work out if people decide to draw a line in the sand when it comes to their health data,” Elimeliah said. “What separates Apple from Google is that Apple finds other ways to make money, and Google is an ad platform that relies on the data it collects to further strengthen its ad products.”

If consumers are willing to give Google the reins to their health data, advertisers – not just health brand marketers, but advertisers in verticals like retail and CPG – stand to gain, said Joe Lavan, director of data and insights at Netmining. For example, a shoe company could serve an ad to commemorate a milestone in a consumer’s running life.

“It’s going to be a huge win for marketers if we can make this data actionable; it’s not only going to benefit more targeted one-to-one messaging, it will also help marketers better understand their own verticals,” Lavan said. “But we also cannot forget that we have to, as an industry, stay extremely wary of respecting the consumer’s data points and that we are not being too intrusive when integrating these new data points.”

It’s a can of worms Apple decided to avoid right out of the gate. Ultimately, the putative difference between Apple and Google lies in the particular nature of each beast.

“Apple is not an ad targeting company; it makes great products and software,” Elimeliah said. “Apple will make plenty of money on the apps people will upload to the store without having to rely on an ad targeting strategy to rationalize giving away software and services for free the way Google does.”

Updated 9/12/14

Following the posting of this story, we were contacted by Google with a reference to its “Policy for advertising based on interests and location,” which appears here:

“When creating remarketing lists or creating your ads, you can’t use any sensitive information about site or app visitors. For the purposes of this policy, sensitive information includes:

      • health or medical information, such as from sites or apps that market to a specific health-related group”

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