free html hit counter Google Selling History as Behavior, But I Like The Controls - John Battelle's Search Blog

Google Selling History as Behavior, But I Like The Controls

By - March 11, 2009

This is very interesting (from the NYT):

Google will begin showing ads on Wednesday to people based on their previous online activities in a form of advertising known as behavioral targeting, which has been embraced by most of its competitors but has drawn criticism from privacy advocates and some members of Congress.

Perhaps to forestall objections to its approach, Google said it planned to offer new ways for users to protect their privacy. Most notably, Google will be the first major company to give users the ability to see and edit the information that it has compiled about their interests for the purposes of behavioral targeting.

I’ve been writing about this for years. See my post on a “Data Bill of Rights.”

Way to go, Google.

Google post on this here. And the policy post is here.

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18 thoughts on “Google Selling History as Behavior, But I Like The Controls

  1. Tom Nocera says:

    I wish I could share your enthusiasm that this breakthrough in GOOG’s tech was really going to improve the life of “Joe Sixpack”. Because a company can do something, doesn’t always mean that it should. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t want Google, or FM or Walmart or anybody to know that much about me, what I enjoy discovering on the ‘Net, or the websites I may visit by accident. That said, I will be curious to have a “look see” to get a handle on what GOOG “thinks” it knows about my wants and needs – right before I upgrade my software to even further block all tracking cookies.

  2. Ian Kennedy says:

    Why not go a step further – why not let people search for ads directly? Every magazine has an Advertiser’s Index. Why is there no online equivalent?

  3. andilinks says:

    This privacy issue is just going to slowly fade away. People just starting to use the net now as children will learn about some real dangers from their parents and as adolescents will figure out which of those things were just paranoia.

    Unless Google really wigs out and gets taken over by a vampire cult kids will just grow up trusting them.

  4. Nick Rinylo says:

    Does Google not do this sort of thing already when logged into our Google accounts. If i am logged in my listings are improved due to my URL’s being in the webmaster tools section. Google is saying “you own this… this is what your looking for”..

  5. nmw says:

    Does this apply to only to Google.COM or also other Google properties? .DE? Youtube?

    And what about how Google tracks users with their chrome browser and-or other spyware applications?

    IMHO this press release raises more questions than are answered.

    I don’t understand what you are so gung ho about. Like you’ve often said: people ought to be concerned about the amount of data Google (and similar companies) are collecting.

    And of course they will sell this data — that is Google’s entire business model! You’ld have to be born yesterday to think otherwise!

  6. mahuya says:

    Wanna share your thoughts, ideas, or opinions? What about sharing it with the world? Here in, comes Uploaded.TV that allows you to do just that! Shoot a video of you expressing your viewpoints and upload it in Watch your video on real TV, anywhere in the world. Let it be known to the world what you think!!

  7. Jason says:

    Interesting story.

  8. Testing says:

    one last test.

  9. JG says:

    Forget privacy, forget Congress. Let’s look at this from Google’s own perspective. I thought Google has publicly stated that they are against behavioral targeting — especially because it doesn’t work. So why the sudden change? Do they value $$ more than their users?

    What I find particularly abhorrent is the fact that behavior-based targeting plays fast and loose with the notion of relevance, and Google is trying to sell this wolf under the sheep’s clothing of relevance.

    For 40 years, relevance in information retrieval has been defined in terms of a “user information need”. Something is only relevant, if it satisfies all or part of a user’s information need. So what is a user information need? It is requirement for information that the user actively-holds. It is a conscious acknowledgement of a lack of information, and a conscious desire to obtain information. Information needs are “pull”.

    Now Google comes along, and says that even when a user is not looking for anything, even when the user does not have an information need, Google is going to use the behavior of that user to show an ad that is “relevant”. I’m sorry, this is out and out fiction. With no user information need, there is no such thing as relevance.

    So call these ads what they are: behaviorally targeted. Call them ads that are more “similar” to users than previous ads. But don’t call them relevant. They are not relevant, and can never be relevant, no matter how many algorithms Google throws at ’em.. because relevance comes from, is only defined in terms of, the user… and the user’s information need. No need = no relevance.


  10. JG says:

    You know.. because if Google really is going to start defining relevance as “behavioral targeting”, then all those fluffy media articles over the past decade, about how wonderful Google is because it (unlike anyone else) targets ads by relevance, need to be rewritten.

    Why? Because companies have been doing behavioral targeting for decades. Go ride the subway, and look at the ads there. They’re targeted to that sort commuter behavior. Drive along the freeway, or visit a football stadium. Or a Nascar race. You’ll see ads that “match” or are more “similar” to certain people and certain people’s behaviors than to others. Heck, even look at the TV commercials that come on during a kid’s cartoon, vs. during a Lifetime drama, vs. during 30 Rock. And it’ll become incredibly clear that all those ads are targeted to the behavior of those watching the show. Different shows = different behavior = different ads.

    Google, in their own mission statement and in the press over the past decade, was supposedly different precisely because they didn’t do that sort of targeting. Instead, they only did relevance-based targeting, which is based (as I said above) on user information need.

    Google can do whatever it wants, sell whatever it wants, collect whatever personal data it wants, be as hypocrisy-filled as it wants. But when it starts to package its offerings under the patriotic flag of “relevance”, I have to speak up. Relevance doesn’t deserve to have its name dragged through the mud like that.

  11. nmw says:


    Google stopped doing search many years ago – their ads still say they do search, but they transitioned into becoming teh online advertising agency years ago.

    When the teenagers & noobies begin to realize this, Google will become just worthless as all the rest of the inflated stocks being traded.

    Indeed, when I noted (i.e. tweeted 😉 a while ago that GOOG had risen almost 50% in a matter of 12 weeks, it all of a sudden stopped rising (and started falling again :O ).

    My “observation” back then was simply that the web / online commerce is a significant factor making the traditional industries go bust (in fact, the other example I noted — Amazon — is still doing comparatively well).

    Most internet companies are not large enough to be listed on stock markets – so the fact that markets are falling says little or nothing about online commerce. The fact that Google is falling again is simply an indication of the fact that Google isn’t really so much an Internet company any more — it’s now a plain and simple (and a traditional and old-fashioned) advertising agency.

  12. afewtips says:

    And Google said they wouldn’t compete against other content providers, and then they rolled out Knol – they are a corporation. They have had great success. But what will they do when they don’t have great growth? Will they still follow the rules and not use the information in a way that benefits them but violates the user?

  13. JG says:

    @nmw: Google stopped doing search many years ago – their ads still say they do search, but they transitioned into becoming teh online advertising agency years ago.

    You’re absolutely correct. You know this. I know this. The web as a whole needs to understand this.

    @afewtips: But what will they do when they don’t have great growth? Will they still follow the rules and not use the information in a way that benefits them but violates the user?

    To quote one of my favorite musicians, former Oingo Boingo frontman and legendary hollywood film score composer Danny Elfman: “They say that values change when hunger or ambition strikes. Survival is essential, at any cost or any price“.

    I’d say that sums up Goog quite well 🙂

    So much for “focus on the user” and “we’re a different sort of company”.

  14. Steve Flinn says:

    As I’ve mentioned previously with regard to the topic of behavioral targeting of ads . . . as opposed to just allowing access to raw behavioral data, I suspect the killer app is providing a detailed explanation to the ad recipient of why he/she received the add. That gives the ad that much more credibility and therefore effectiveness, and can also serve to provide some transparency about the data used and the inferences derived from the data.

    Credibility + Trust = Sale Closed. Sort of like in the real world . . .

  15. JG says:

    @Steve Flinn: If Google were really a search company, they would do what you propose for their organic search results before they ever did it for their ads. Let me rephrase you:

    I suspect the killer app is providing a detailed explanation to the [organic search result] recipient of why he/she received the [search result].

    Time to get to work again, Google.

  16. nmw says:

    I overlooked @Ian’s question above — but let me warn you: many studies have shown that sponsored links are a high risk on many levels. That said, you can search to your heart’s content here:

  17. Ian Kennedy says:

    @nmw thanks for the pointer, I did not know about this site. Interesting to see that clicks on ads here do not earn GOOG any revenue. Wonder how they rank the ads?

  18. Steve Flinn says:

    @JG: agreed. Co-delivered explanations could benefit recipients of any type of automated recommendation. And, of course, advertisements considered most generally are just a particular type of recommendation, as are the results of a search request.