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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  1. identicon
    John Doe, 9 Mar 2012 @ 6:05am

    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.

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