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Thursday Signal: Google's AdSense Cookie – The Untold Story

By - March 04, 2010

susan.jpgToday in Signal we take a walk down memory lane, of sorts, because sometimes such a journey helps us prepare for what lies in the path ahead.  

Early last week I ran into Susan Wojcicki, VP of Product Management for Google. Now, Susan is more than just another Google VP, she’s also on Google’s operating committee. Oh, and the person in whose garage Google was founded, not to mention Sergey’s sister in law. If Google were a family, Susan would be something of a matriarch.

Susan had just gotten off stage at the annual IAB conference, and I caught up with her as we were both leaving. We got to talking about all things AdSense, and I mentioned a story I had heard recently – without divulging my source, the story went that some at Google believed AdSense had been rolled out too early, before it was ready for primetime.

Now, nothing will provoke the ire of a product person more than a charge such as that, and I’ll admit my own ignorance of this fact even as I spoke. Susan disputed my story, and then responded that if Google was too late on anything, it was putting a cookie into AdSense. “We didn’t do that until late 2008!” she reminded me – and did so only as part of integrating DoubleClick into the Google Content Network. And the company didn’t really commercialize that cookie until March of last year, when it implemented the Ads Preferences Manager, a sets of controls that I noted at the time was industry leading (and I’ve been a pretty harsh critic in this area, as you may recall.)

All this stopped me short. Somehow I missed this story – I just assumed that AdSense dropped a cookie on all of us, and had done so since the service was launched back in 2001. After all, Google has been Keeblering the web for as long as I could remember, as a fair share of critics had already pointed out. I figured AdSense was just integrated into the master Google cookie – one Oreo to rule them all, right?

Wrong. Turns out, there was quite an internal debate within Google about whether adding a cookie to AdSense constituted a breach of consumer privacy. Early on, a decision was taken that it might, and for years, AdSense had no cookie at all. This severely limited AdSense’s ability to create competitive marketing products – putting Google years behind other ad networks in the race to provide behavioral and interest-driven audience segments to its customers. (One could even argue that early decision augured the acquisition of DoubleClick itself, but that’s pure speculation.) I mentioned to Susan that given all the scrutiny it recieves, Google probably doesn’t get enough credit for demonstrating such sensitivity. She concurred.

But the story tugged at me. Here was another historical anecdote about Google, oft the subject of privacy ridicule, once again struggling with a question that, to be honest, just about every other company on the web had already settled (and yes, my company FM also sets cookies.) I then pinged Google PR to get a bit more background. From a spokesperson’s response:

We didn’t launch this service until we had developed the Ads Preferences Manager, which allows users to view and edit the interest categories we use. We also developed browser plug-ins (link) to make the opt-out from the cookie persistent. Today, each week tens of thousands of users visit the Ads Preferences Manager. For every person who decides to opt out, 4 people edit their preferences and 10 do nothing.

Why do I tell this story? Well, for once, I just wanted a record of it somewhere, so I could point to it as I report on other privacy and marketing data related issues. And secondly, as a reminder of what’s at stake as we, as an industry, begin what is certain to be a very long dialog with Washington and others about the role of data in marketing. Google delayed implementing industry standard technology for years because it feared a backlash amongst consumers, a backlash that never came. And it’s important to think about why. To my mind one reason is the Ad Preferences Manager. It’s not perfect, but it’s an important start, one that others (like Facebook) have come to mimic. The more our industry acknowledges that instrumenting consumer controls – what I have called the Data Bill of Rights – is critical to the success of their platforms, the easier our dialog with government will be.

Keep this in mind if you’re a regular reader of this site. Remember the Database of Intentions, my first “meaty” post back in 2003? I’ll be updating it soon, and the issue of rights to that data has never been more important.

Onwards to today’s linkable bits:

Sorrell questions rush to social media (FT via IWantMedia)

Google Responds To Privacy Concerns With Unsettlingly Specific Apology (The Onion) Just kind of funny, in an unfair but to be expected way.

Sony Readies Gadgets to Rival Apple (WSJ) Oh God, please, please Sony. Please do this right. Please make it an open system, not vertically integrated? Pretty please? With sugar on top?

The Internet of Things (McKinsey) Watch this space.

Turn your skin into a touch screen (Conrad Lisco) Watch this and then ask yourself, are we really going to be tapping into iPhones in ten years? Didn’t think so.

Facebook and Twitter Access via Mobile Browser Grows by Triple-Digits in the Past Year (Comscore) More proof of the undeniably obvious link between Mobile and Social (oh and Local and Realtime…yeah, MOLRS, baby.)


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5 thoughts on “Thursday Signal: Google's AdSense Cookie – The Untold Story

  1. DazzlinDonna says:

    Pretty sure you got that start date wrong. Unless I’m crazy, and last I checked I still had at least a couple brain cells left, Adsense didn’t launch in 2001; it launched in 2003.

  2. John says:

    AdWords started in ’01, Adsense rolled later, you are right.

  3. Rick says:

    This was a good post because of your hefty background with ad networks.

    I thought the Ads prefernce manager was something on the Adsense publisher settings. I never realized it was a setting for readers.

  4. Thank you very much for the information you provided really did help thank you for everything

  5. Jack Yan says:

    If only opting out was possible. I know Google claims it is, and based on your article above, it should at least respect user choices, but the reality is that opting out does not work as the company claims.

    You can press the ‘Opt out’ button on the Ads Preferences Manager and Google will make claims that you have now been opted out.

    But head back in to the Ads Preferences Manager after a day or so. You’ll find that Google has lied to you. It doesn’t matter what brand of browser you use.

    I’ve been testing this for around a month now, and the longest I have stayed opted out is three days. The shortest I have stayed opted out is a few hours.

    For years I found myself opted back in, but put it down to browser upgrades and the like. Now, having monitored the situation keenly, and ensuring that cookies are not cleared with each session, I am convinced that Ads Preferences Manager is a crock.

    For all its claims to technology, Google is the only member of the NAI and the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising that does not respect its own opt-out cookie. Every other member advertising network does not have this issue.

    Please don’t just take my word for it. I invite you to check your Ads Preferences Manager regularly.