Loosening The Privacy Reins Isn't So Bad, But Where's The Payoff?

from the something-for-nothing dept

The Register recently published an interesting piece looking at the other, less-discussed side of the online privacy debate: what are users getting in return? Writer Matt Asay doesn’t have a huge problem with ad networks tracking his behavior—or at least he wouldn’t, if he was seeing more of the useful, ultra-targeted ads he is supposed to get in return:

What grates on me is that for all the spying these companies do on my online behavior, they can’t seem to serve me an ad for something I’d actually want to buy. Worse, they’re terrible at delivering anything close to approximating a deal on the things I’d like to buy, even when I tell Google exactly what I want.

What gives?

For example, I ski a lot. And I spend a reasonable amount of time on Backcountry.com, Rossignol.com and other ski-related sites. Even the most rudimentary tracking technology should know that I’m interested in Rossignol skis (perhaps it would even know I bought two pairs of Rossignol skis this past year), yet when I type in “skis” into Google or even “Rossignol” into Google, the ads served up are for … something completely different. Even the store that sold me my last pair of Rossignol skis – EVO – keeps trying to show me every kind of ski except Rossignol skis.

… Come on, people: if you’re going to track my online behavior, at least use it to get me to buy something I want!

Asay feels that, based on his purchasing habits, advertisers should be able to figure out that he’s loyal to Rossignol skis—but he could be encouraged to spend more money on them if he was targeted with ads for sale prices and other promotions. Instead, he’s shown full-price retail listings for brands he’s not interested in, pointing him to retailers he already knows about.

Now, in some ways this example is a little unfair, since it’s only natural that companies are going to want to advertise to their competitors’ customers, and not letting them do so would remove one of their biggest incentives for spending money on ads. But Asay still hits an important point: most targeted ads are not that effective. Online advertising as a whole already faces a public perception crisis in the form of privacy concerns, and they are never going to solve it if they don’t put more emphasis on giving customers something in return for their privacy sacrifices.

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Comments on “Loosening The Privacy Reins Isn't So Bad, But Where's The Payoff?”

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John Doe says:

Maybe Google thinks he is old, or female or ???

Google guesses your age and gender, something I just found out about. A friend of mine posted that Google thought he was a 65+ year old man when he is in fact 20+ years younger. A female friend said Google thought she was a 65+ year old man as well. I checked and it had me almost right though I was 1 year under the age range it thought I was.

So for all the smarts at Google, their inference of who you are and what you are interested in isn’t quite there yet.

ComputerAddict (profile) says:

“Even the store that sold me my last pair of Rossignol skis ? EVO ? keeps trying to show me every kind of ski except Rossignol skis. “

Well if your back to buy skis again in less than a year, maybe EVO thinks you dont like your rossignol’s and are offering something different to try?

or maybe if you search for ski’s they know you already bought skis and are less likely to buy again in a short period of time so they show ads for hats / gloves / jackets / thule roof racks etc. Your google search is suppose to yield what your looking for, the ads are delivering the “accessories” that the stores try to get you to ADD on to your order, because they know you’re already going to buy a set of skis… lets jump on the attaching the high-profit items. Just food for thought.

Ninja (profile) says:

It’s interesting, they always miss my preferences. Always. I do run adblock but I let Google out because their services are super useful for me so I might give money in return too. Techdirt could be in the same boat it the ads were way less flashy (text only would be nice).

It’s amusing that even last.fm who has ALL my listening habits, fails miserably in delivering me good musical advice. And amusingly my predicted age (based on my listening habits) has switched from 60+ to something near 15 and back to 60 a few times already.

So one has to wonder, they keep more and more data about you and yet they fail to use it wisely.

I do have a theory about this though. I think the system works for the mainstream consumers. But mainstream is getting more and more fragmented so it’s actually getting smaller. For example, me. I listen to almost anything. From Lady Gaga to Kerion, from Spice Girls to Nightwish. This is CONFUSING. I also read from copyright and anonymous stuff to useless gossip and gaming. I’m confusing. And ppl are getting more and more confusing as they move away from standard stereotypes into what humans really are: a complete mess of tastes, ideas and opinions.

So maybe, just maybe, targeted ads based on algorithms might not be the future. Why not ask the ppl what they want to see? Allow them to choose what types of ads don’t suit their needs? Food for thought.

Anonymous Coward says:

I hate the idea of being tracked everywhere I go!It’s kinda like someone standing behind me and reading over my shoulder.It’s just rude!
If they wanted to pay me every month to follow me around then maybe I could get behind it…if It’s enough money then I would even send them a report of my activities and interests.

jsl4980 (profile) says:

I like the idea of targeted advertising or targeted content. It would be great if Google or Facebook or whoever else could just show me things that are interesting to me without me searching. Unfortunately that’s not their business, they sell my attention to advertisers; they don’t necessarily tailor advertisements/content to what I want.

Right now Google is pretty terrible at guessing what I’d like. I’ve tried Google Reader’s “Explore” section before and the suggestions are terrible. I would also love to see the Android App Store be smart enough to suggest apps/games/media I would like based on my current apps. I’ve provided them with a ton of info about me; it would be nice to start seeing some helpful recommendations.

Anonymous Coward says:

What target might that be?

Over the last few years, without ever shopping for such products, I have learned more from “targeted” advertising about how and what I should use to take care of my female naughty bits and remedy the discomfort and inconvenience they bring than I ever did in any mandatory or elective classes in the public schools. Or directly from one who possesses such equipment. Alas, my willy has a single-minded drive to do one thing, and one thing only, and has no interest in such products. Nor can it read or type. And as the years pass, its spending habits are becoming ever more frugal.

This is the supposed future of advertising? A request then: Please try to do (perhaps) just a /tiny/ bit better with your targeting. Maybe present products that are at least of passing interest to the /big/ head? (To whom it may concern: The big head controls the hand. The hand controls the wallet. /And/ the willy.)

Mel (profile) says:

Same here.

Just last night I search for a dimmable fluorescent floor lamp & Google shopping suggested a $50 item immediately followed by a $1,500 floor lamp. That one I can see up to a point, but just barely.

Earlier in the week I did a search for “Muskogee election board” (Muskogee county Oklahoma). I didn’t use quotes or specify a state. So the first result is … Muscogee election board (Muscogee county Georgia). Yes, the two names are absolutely related. The “K” version is simply a different spelling of the same name, both being tied to the Muscogee (Creek) Indian Nation.

With all of that said, the question becomes – Why, when given a search that does have an exact spelling match in the Google index, that happens to be the same area the user’s IP address is pointing to, why given all of that does Google present the number one result as a different spelling 1,500 miles away.

I’ve been seeing this type of thing for while now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Back in the day I used to get the Sunday paper and look thru the ads. But only if I was interested in something and searching for the best deal.
Now the stupidity of it all is almost overwhelming
The Ad people seem to think that if they bombard me with enough ads for overpriced shabby junk that I will break down and buy something from them when in reality all they do is piss me off and waste my time managing all the anti ad stuff that I have on my PC.
I often wonder what it would be like if I could just surf the net and not worry about the consequences of clicking on a link or visiting a website.

Don’t even get me started on spam!

Haywood (profile) says:

I never thought targeting would work

I never thought targeting would work & I’m seldom disappointed. My shopping habits are all over the place, I farm, stuff breaks, I love computers, stuff gets obsolete, I drive cars and trucks, stuff breaks. so in a given week i might shop everything from grass seed to ssd drives, with a timing belt thrown in. I buy everything possible on line, even appliances, if competitively priced. Saves time & gas.
I’ve bought buildings online, building kits anyhow. Worked real well; semis just kept bringing stuff till I had a building. Still, I get idiotic ads for stuff I’d never buy or prices I’d never pay.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course Marcus, you and the original writer both miss a simple point: perhaps knowing that he has already bought Rossignol skis, they no longer feel the need to market them to him. Rather, they choose to market other related items, possibly charging more because he is a known “ski buyer”. After all, marketing is not about selling you what you already own as much as selling you what you don’t have yet.

You are, as always, lacking the ability to think past the end of your nose.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:


You should at least read all the way to the end of the post before automatically criticizing me:

Now, in some ways this example is a little unfair, since it’s only natural that companies are going to want to advertise to their competitors’ customers, and not letting them do so would remove one of their biggest incentives for spending money on ads.

But of course you have to find something to complain about.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

I will share info if I get something in return

I use credit cards issued by a few stores I shop all the time because the cards provide discounts with every purchase. So I don’t mind having those companies track all my purchases at those stores (I don’t use the cards at other stores so I don’t provide the card issuers with a broader picture of my spending patterns) in exchange for giving me a deal. Similarly I use grocery cards at grocery stores. They aren’t credit cards, but they give me special pricing on many items. Again, a fair exchange in my mind. I get cheaper items, they learn what I buy.

With both Google and Facebook, I won’t click on the ads. I don’t want to encourage either Google or Facebook to provide them to me, I don’t want the advertisers to pay for me clicking out of curiosity, and I don’t trust that the ads will necessarily be legit. For example, I noticed that in gmail, Google gave me an ad for some company offering “overstock” MacBooks for $50 or something like that. Oh yeah, sure, that was a legit company. In other words, the fact that Google put the ad in my email is no guarantee that the company isn’t spam.

The problem with both Google and Facebook is that their sources of income are just two things: advertising and/or data collection. Assuming that world economic conditions are going to continue to limit consumer spending, those income sources may not be all that secure for them.

If I want to know what a company is offering, I’m interested enough to sign up for that company’s mailing list. Google and Facebook ads don’t work for me, and if those two companies really understood me, they wouldn’t bother to send me any.

leichter (profile) says:

As far as I can see, not a single comment here so far is from a person in a position to judge whether targeting works. That’s because “works” is measured by *the customer who bought the ads*, not by *the person receiving them*.

Advertising is a game of statistics. No matter what medium you use, most ads will be completely ignored by the vast majority of people who see them. That’s a reality that businesses have had to accept for years – there’s even an old joke to the effect that “Half my advertising money is wasted. If only I knew which half!” In fact, if you consider an ignored ad “wasted money”, the fraction “wasted” is over 99%. The only way to judge whether advertising is actually effective is to compare profit – income minus expenses, where expenses includes ads – for different amounts of advertising. Not easy to do, but most businesses have concluded that “wasting” money on ads is actually a worthwhile investment.

Because the actual fraction of ads that pay off is so small, it takes only a tiny increase in the absolute number to make a big difference. Suppose you ran an ad that a million people saw, and it brought in 100 customers you wouldn’t have otherwise bought your product. (In most situations, that would be an incredibly successful campaign.) Now suppose targeting doubles that to 200 new customers.

Initially, of the million people who saw the ads, 100 thought they were relevant, while 999,900 thought they were not. With targeting, 999,800 thought they were not. So if you ask those who received the ads whether they got relevant ads, you’ll reach the conclusion that an absolutely overwhelming percentage did not. Obviously, targeting *doesn’t work*.

And yet, doubling the number of customers the ad brings in is an impossibly high improvement. Advertisers would kill to get it. More to the point – they’d pay a great deal of money to whoever could deliver numbers like that. Obviously, targeting *does* work!

— Jerry

Preposition Joe says:

Similar Problem

A while ago I signed up to get a certain Certificate. Say it’s a fork-lift-truck driver’s certificate.

I signed up for a class, took the lessons, got the certificate. Yay me.

But GMail doesn’t seem to recognise that last part. It’s driving me insane. This was six months ago, and despite my having emails which say things like “congratulations, your fork-lift-truck license is in the mail”, GMail is constantly showing me ads like “get your fork-lift-truck license today!”.

Note to google. If I have 20 emails over a couple of months about a certain educational attainment, then I get another email with “congratulations” mentioning that attainment and all emails cease at that point? It’s over.

Harrington (profile) says:

Maybe Google thinks he is old, or female or ???

My story with began, I loved my my boyfriend so much but he never loved me rather he travelled with another girl to unknown destination, I was all over the internet trying to find who could help me out with my situation but no results at all or little signs, I have to admit I was about to give up on him, then one day I was making a search on a google i found dr.marnish@yahoo.com in the internet where he had helped many girls who had the same issue with me, when i contacted him he said he will help me and just as he said after But 3 days after the the spell was done, I received an email from my boyfriend and that?s when things really changed he stopped his bad habit, We came back together and I was astounded because so many say they are the best but can’t back it. but dr.marnish really surprised me with his spell, i want to testify today about the seriousness of dr marnish
Harrington, England

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