Thursday, August 11, 2005
It's interesting to juxtapose the formal and informal statements of Google staffers (on panels, and in the hallway) on the question of making more behavioral targeting available to advertisers, with the reality that they are piloting just such a program, as reported by MediaPost.
Googlers frequently take a more cautious line about privacy and the use of behavioral data than some of their competitors, such as MSN Search, who are planning to roll out more demographic targeting options for advertisers. "Our belief is that your data is your data" is a typical Google take on such matters.
Ok, so how to reconcile that with proceeding with this pilot program?
Well, for one thing, this doesn't involve Google itself directly tracking user behavior or using private data shared by its own users. It appears that it will be a voluntary disclosure by publishers about the aggregate demographic patterns of their readerships. No offline publication could sell ads without that. If publishers do a good job of communicating that information, advertisers will find them through the AdWords Site Targeting platform, and their rates will go up. If they do a poor job of it, they'll confuse people and wind up being an underperforming part of the AdSense network.
By pushing ahead with this pilot with little warning, but making the fundamentals of the initiative more benign than they first appear to be, perhaps Google is hoping to spur rivals into doing something crazy and getting into backlash territory. Regardless of the motivations behind the timing or the design of the program, Google seems likely to pursue a gradualist approach that does less to implicate Google directly in privacy issues than the approaches that seem likely to emanate from more aggressive rivals.
Yahoo also seems to be taking a gradual but steady approach. It's definitely good for advertisers, but they need to take care that it's also fair to users. Many in the advertising business will push them to overstep reasonable bounds of user privacy. They ought to resist that pressure.
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