Saturday, March 14, 2009

Google: Behavioral Targeting Ads Make Sense (Cents)

Recently, the online mega-conglomerate Google launched its behavioral targeting ad campaign, labeling it as "interest-based advertising".  The new marketing scheme is, in essence, a more sophisticated and refined way for Google to strategically place targeted ads into its myriad web-based services/products that it offers, most notably into Google search.  

Privacy is a major concern here. Information about how you use the web is collected, stored and associated within a cookie on your web browser.   Google can potentially track your cookies, and follow a user across different websites and online services.  Although clearing out and deleting cookies regularly can help, it is not a panacea, as new cookie are always re-recorded the next time your browser loads a banner ad. 

Still, I believe that a full blown call to arms against Google's invasion of privacy is neither warranted, nor entirely rational. 

First, many companies already monitor behavior, collecting data to provide select "interest-based" services to its clientele.  Every time you use a "shopper's club card" at a grocery store like a Safeway/Wegmans/Giant Eagle, or at wholesale seller such as a Costco, that corporation records data about which particular items you are purchasing, and at what quantity and frequency.  Some seller's now choose to exploit this information to aim weekly advertisements at certain customers, or to print-out coupons for related, "interest-based" products, and then distribute these coupons directly to the consumer immediately following the sale. 

Further, the largest and most successful online seller,, not only replicates the grocery store model in tracking purchases, but goes further. They also collecting information about what items you are viewing while in their store [imagine a grocery store with the ability to track what items you are browsing, but do not actually purchase] .  Amazon then uses the monstrous amount of data they constantly accumulate on each customer to continually provide new "interest-based" recommendations and suggestions.  

Arguably, the grocery-store model and the Amazon model constitute invasions of privacy, but they are also beneficial to the individual customer. These privacy threats are tolerated and even celebrated.   The grocery store model potentially provides the consumer with discounts on the products they buy most often, and are likely to purchase again in the future.  The Amazon model often provides (what I consider) excellent recommendations, allowing users to discover a world of new content they would not otherwise have stumbled across. 

Google is simply following suit. Granted, the benefits of Google's new ad program are not going to be as pronounced as with either the grocery store or Amazon model.  But since advertisements are always going to be present, they might as well be "interest-based."  Who knows?  You might actually find some good deals. 

Also, it is important not to forget that Google provides numerous free services.  Google gives us free search capability, G-mail, Blogger, Google Reader, Google Earth, etc... This does not justify an increased privacy threat, but I think it does, at least, partially vindicate Google in their behavioral monitoring activity. And, rest assured, Google does provides a choice to opt-out.  Although the program should presumably be opt-in, like the grocery store and Amazon models [you choose to enroll in a shopper's club program, or to create an account on Amazon], it still demonstrates a good-faith effort on Google's part to respect privacy as much as practicable.  Plus, you do not have to use Google's services (Yahoo!!!).

The technological structure and character of the Internet inherently creates an increased opportunity for behavioral monitoring.  However, you are the one making the decisions concerning your cyberspace behavior. You choose what services you use, and what content you access online.  This instills a sense of individual responsibility to counterbalance and compliment the good-faith obligations of online entities such as Google. 

As long as we collectively assume accountability for our online behaviors, while still making sure that Google does not abuse the power they hold as a provider of online services, we can all safely function online without fears of privacy invasion. 

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