A Funny Thing Happened As I Was “Tracked”

I’m still in recovery mode after the wave of Apple-defenders inundated me with privacy-related comments over this past weekend, and I promise to continue the dialog – and admit where I may be wrong – once I feel I’ve properly grokked the story. The issue of privacy as it relates to the Intenet is rather a long piece of yarn, and I’m only a small part of the way toward unraveling this particular sweater. (And yes, I know there are plenty of privacy absolutists rolling their eyes at me right now, but if you don’t want to hear my views after some real reporting and thinking on the subject, just move along….). lf you want to peruse some of the recent stories on the subject I’ve been reading, you can start with the Signal post I just finished.

Meanwhile, I want to tell you a little story about advertising and tracking, which is at the heart of much of the current tempest.

While skiing last week at my home mountain of Mammoth (the only place in California with a decent snowpack), my family and I stayed at a Westin property. It’s a relatively new place, and pretty nice for Mammoth – which is more of  a “throw the kids in the station wagon and drive up” kind of resort. It’s not exactly Vail or Aspen – save for the skiing, which I dare say rivals any mountain in the US.

Anyway, I stayed at the Westin, as as such, I visited the Westin site many a time during my stay for various reasons (I also visited before I came, of course, to research stuff like whether it had a gym, restaurant menus, and the like).

Now, besides visiting the Westin site while at Mammoth, I also visited Amazon.com, because I was looking to buy a particular adapter for my SIM card. I’m eager to try out the new Nexus Galaxy, but the SIM in my iPhone is a different size, and to use it in the Nexus, I need an adapter.

I didn’t end up buying the adapter, because I got distracted, but I did visit Amazon’s page for the device.

Now, why am I telling you all this? Because after visiting those two sites (Westin and Amazon), I noticed the ads I was seeing as I cruised the web changed. A lot. In particular, on my own site, which is powered by the company I chair, FM:

The ad at the top is from Amazon, with a picture of the very thing I almost bought. Now, is that creepy, or is that useful?

The ad on the side is from Westin, offering me a free night or $500 credit if I book another Westin vacation. Again, creepy, or …potentially a benefit?

This is “tracking” at work, and while some of us find it creepy, I find it rather benign. Both those ads are very pertinent to *me*, and one (the Westin) might even save me a lot of money – I love the idea of getting a free night at a place I’ve already stayed at and enjoyed (and I am a Starwood member, and stay at a lot of other Westins, so heck, I might just use that offer sometime soon).

Regardless of those specifics, it’s hard to argue that these ads are *worse* than the undifferentiated slop that once filled up ad space across the web. And that’s pretty much the point of cookie-driven advertising – that it use our data to offer up marketing messages that are, in the end, better than if the advertisers didn’t have the data in the first place.

After all, Facebook and Google offer up exactly the same kind of ads on their owned and operated domains – ads that are relevant to you – based on data you provided to them (the search term, or your Facebook profile). Somehow that’s OK, but when it’s done across the open web – well, then it’s “creepy.”

The problem, I think, is that we generally don’t trust these third-party advertising networks – we think they are doing nefarious things with our data, somehow screwing us, tracking us like hunted animals, creating vast profiles that could fall into the wrong hands. And the ad industry needs to address this issue of trust.

If you look at both those ads, it turns out the industry is doing just that. Each of the ads have an “ad choices” logo you can click to find out what’s going on behind the ad. Here’s what I saw when I clicked on Amazon’s “privacy” link:

This page clearly explains why I’m seeing the ad, and offers me an explicit choice to opt out of seeing ads like this in the future. Seems fair to me.

Here’s what I see when I clicked on the “ad choices” logo for the Westin ad:

That’s a popover, telling me that my browsing activity (I assume my multiple visits to Westin.com) has informed the offer. It tells me that an ad network owned by Akamai is behind the tracking and trafficking of the ad. And it offers me more links, should I want to learn more. I clicked on the “More information & opt out options” link, and saw this from Evidon,which Akamai uses to power its opt out and other programs:

This page offers a prominent opt out for the companies who served me the ad. it even offers a link to Ghostery, a service which I’ve used in the past to track who’s dropping cookies and such on my browser.

Now, I’m not arguing that this system is perfect, but it’s certainly quite a step forward from where we were a year ago.

And no, I didn’t opt out of anything. Not because I founded an Independent web advertising and content company (FM), but because frankly, I think the ads I’m getting are better as a result of this ecosystem. And I’m getting benefits I wouldn’t have had before (a free night at the Westin, a reminder to go get that SIM adapter I hadn’t yet bought). And, frankly, because this is all happening on the Independent web, insuring that small sites like mine get a chance to benefit from the same kind of value that Facebook and Google already have as “first party” websites – the value of my data. (More on this point in later posts, I am sure).

Now, if these companies end up doing evil, wrongheaded, or plain stupid things with my data, I’m going to be the first to opt out. And there’s plenty more we have to do to get this ecosystem right. But I thought it instructive to lay out how it’s working so far. And so far, I don’t find it anything but benign, if not actually useful. What do you think?

46 thoughts on “A Funny Thing Happened As I Was “Tracked””

  1. The problem is, I don’t know what the standards are, and who follows the standards. So, should I trust a little startup that’s tracking me, as well as Google?

    Who’s more likely to sell my data? Who’s turning it over to the government?

    I need a standard, and I need a way to tell who follows the standard.

    1. I think that is utterly fair. We’re really early in figuring out all of this. I prefer to not kill the ecosystem while we figure it out. Remember, all those big first party websites have the upper hand in that they have your “explicit” opt in to use your data, and it’d be the independent sites (like mine) that will suffer if our “inventory” is considered data poor and not worth the attention of major marketers. I prefer to work vigorously to figure out ways to keep publishers in business, while at the same time protecting and enhancing the experience and data of publishers’ customers – you, the readers.

      1. My friends don’t agree, but I would like more gov’t regulation: https://plus.google.com/114875588593485801330/posts/GpuUbEoxRXw

        1. I don’t believe industries regulate themselves very well. They tend to do things that are bad for themselves and their customers, long term.

        2. I hate bad regulation, but I love the regulation that gives me safe drugs, seat belts as a standard, qualified real estate agents – all without me having to research every vendor I do business with.

        I hope for the same with internet advertising.

      2. Regulation is not a dirty word to me, if it’s smart. I’m not anti-regulation. I am anti-early lock down however.

      3. Lock down means regulations that stymie innovation. And early would be now till we figure out better instrumentation.

  2.  I don’t understand.  If you want “pertinent advertising”, you are right.  However if some of the “pertinent advertising” displays things you prefer to keep private then it can be creepy.  It can be creepy in what whatever the other entity knows and can be creepy if your device is used by another or you show things on the device to others (and you have less control or feel that way when a 3rd party entity gets involved since you don’t know what their standard behaviors are).  Whether this might include investigating a competitor or searching for information for a gift for a surprise party or planning the party itself or whatever else.  In other words I disagree with the way you are framing the issue. 

    The opt-out options, at least to me, are more for techies and not likely to be apparent to a good portion of the public. 

    1. You point out any number of important “instrumentation” issues which I think need to be worked out. Answer me this, though: Do you find Facebook or Google search ads equally “creepy” and prone to these issues?

      1. I think I would find Google search ads creepier than Facebook ones since with the latter are a function more of what I choose to display to the world or to my friends(at least so far). In terms of actual experience, I don’t notice the Facebook ads really (I pay essentially no attention to them). The Google search ads haven’t creeped me out so far, though the Gmail ones unsettle me a bit.

        I accept (via your insights) that my Google searches, if they were ever revealed would make me uncomfortable. Yet to me its very different for things to be reasonably predictable (i.e. the last 50 times I searched Google, this is what happened) versus coming into contact with a 3rd party entity and finding that things weren’t as I anticipated. And its not clear to me why in that instance my interests would not be different from the 3rd party vendor (very different with Google where I might take the time to address the issue and/or their interest might be to not alienate me).

        To me this is more in line with your point in the last month about Facebook’s interests and their users interests not being in concert. I feel that every time I enter their space. I have never used them to login in anywhere as I don’t trust that my login to some site will not be shared without my control.

      2.  Don’t know about facebook (usually just ignore it and think the net is better off without it), but google ads normally relate to the content of the site the user is dealing with anyway. Simple concept, and no need to be obtrusive for that.

  3. Your analysis sounds reasonable for something benign like the westin or a piece of tech hw.  At the creepy end of the spectrum would be health issues or sex “hw”.  Of course, there’s a multitude of grey space in between.  Any thoughts on where to draw the line?

  4.  I’ve actually changed my mind about this issue alot over this past year or so, partially thanks to you John. 😉

    As far as tracking goes, I’m not 100% happy about it, but I’m not
    completely irate about it either. My main issue is with the security of
    my data, I think regulations o the handling of data by ad networks would
    be a big step in the right direction.

      As for handling the creepiness? Three browsers.

    One that I use for my Google RSS feed/Gmail/Twitter. A second for most
    casual web browsing, and a third browser inside a VM to open untrusted
    links. (What can I say, I work in IT Security).

    Add in addons like ghostery, noscript and the like, and anyone ‘being tracked’ is also ‘being lazy’.

    1. Thanks for the insights, appreciate. I also use browsers in this way, though I think to expect most consumers of the web to do so is probably asking too much no?

  5. As usual, you’ve laid out a cogent argument;
    in this case that the privacy issue is not as terrible as others loudly make it
    out to be. It requires attention, for sure, but it seems ‘benign, a conclusion
    I agree with.

    However, there is another side of the
    issue, one that you have championed – the value of the data. What is relevant
    here is that consumers give away considerably more value to the online media
    players in return for a modest level of convenience and inconsistent savings
    (over which they have no control since the offers are seller initiated). Plus
    the present 1-to-M model of broadcasting is inherently wasteful, as evidenced
    by the dismal low single digits results.

    So a reasonable alternative is to pay
    consumers for their purchasing intent information. Not only do both sides of
    the sales transaction gain, but each receives the benefit they respectively value
    the most – consumers earn cash and sellers efficiency. In fact, it’s the remarkable
    rise in merchants’ marketing efficiency that energizes this exchange. Because
    it literally reverses accuracy from near zero to close to 100 percent, it creates
    enough value to generously incentivize consumers to participate.  Of course, there is much of what you refer to
    as ‘instrumentation’ to address but it’s quite doable.

    Compensating consumers would hurt
    online media players across the board, but who knows how they might respond as
    it emerges, which invariably it will. Perhaps they can play a key role in the ‘instrumentation’. 


    1. Nathan,

      Did you pay John Battelle anything for the content you just read? I sure didn’t. How is a web content creator like John supposed to be compensated for his time, creativity, and effort in the online world? Advertising is currently the only model that works; if it works that well for many content creators still remains to be seen.

      Your compensation for giving away data isn’t highly-targeted ads (that’s a fringe benefit). Your compensation is getting free content. A pretty sweet deal for you on both ends.

      If you think you should be compensated for your data, perhaps you should offer to compensate content creators for what you currently get for free.

      Or, you could just adjust your privacy settings. He did lay out pretty clearly how it’s done. That way you can see just as many ads as you see now, they just won’t be any use to you…

      1. I dunno, the attention you as readers give to my content is valuable to me, I resell it, so to speak, to marketers. Even deal, I hope…

      2. Winterbagel,

        Valid points, particularly that the likes of John deserve compensation. But
        one of your comments made me realize that I did clarify enough regarding the

        “Your compensation is getting free
        content. A pretty sweet deal for you on both ends.”

        The last sentence is crucial since my contention it that it is definitely NOT
        a ‘sweet deal’ for consumers. They deserve more than free content. But that
        does not necessarily mean that the media losses out. The extra money comes from
        the immense efficiency gained by starting from the buyer side of the sales
        transaction, which is inherent in an exchange of purchasing intent data for
        rewards. In other words, because that approach results in an immensely more
        efficient market, there is considerably more value to distribute; if form
        nowhere else than simply from eliminating the waste that accompanies

        Here is another way to look at this situation: If under the dismally inefficient
        broadcast 1-to-M model users are receiving free content, then imagine how much
        more they would gain under an innately more efficient buyer-centric model. They
        would still enjoy the content without charge but now also gain two more
        valuable benefits – control of their valuable data and cash (or, as John noted,
        some equivalent). And again, consumers offering their purchasing intent data
        for cash rewards from merchants eager to pay
        for that valuable information is sufficiently efficient to provide them those added

    2. I think media players will be critical in the development of just such an ecosystem, but I don’t know if the currency will be actual dollars – it may be more of a virtual currency, or a currency of offers (like the Westin offer I received).

  6. A nugget of discount-price cheese for putting your head in the private-info mousetrap. Yes, it all seems very harmless; after all, there’s an opt-out option right? What does that opt-out option say: “…It means that the company you opt out of will no longer use your data to target ads to you”. TRANSLATION: “We have no intention of eliminating your private info, as there are simply too many profitable usages for it. Rather, we will simply no longer alert you (by targeting ads to you) to the ways we plan on abusing your personal info.” I’m more interested in the long-term costs than the short-term discounts.  How about an opt-out clause that explicitly states: “If you decide to opt out, we will delete your personal information.” ? Yeah. Fat chance.

  7. Agree with your two main points. a) these ads are more useful to me (closer to recommended content, than ads). So as long as the companies involved “don’t be evil”, then why would i opt out? And b) the industry has recently made big step towards providing transparency / delivering comfort to the user. My fave example is from Zappos (screen shot here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tobiaspeggs/5156115206/) – but, then again, you would expect that from a company that generally differentiates on great customer service.

      1. i’ve had really good – and multi channel – experiences of being “tracked” by Zappos. 

        I tweeted once about their retargeting ads, then got an @ reply from Zappos explaining what they do and why… which made me revisit the site and buy some shoes (the whole point)… which they then followed up with an instant email saying i’d qualified for free overnight shipping. The last link of that chain probably wasn’t connected to the same underlying business process… but by then it “felt” like it was. More to the point, i was perfectly OK being “tracked” by Zappos… because they were definitely not being evil (in fact, they were positively helpful). The point is: Zappos have figured out how to make this not feel spooky, by wrapping the whole end-to-end process up in excellent customer communication/service (with ads being one part of that end-to-end experience). A case study. Pass that on! I was (and always am) super impressed with them.

  8. A few weeks ago, I was looking for a new UPS, as my old one left me. I still tend to buy IT hardware over a counter where I just can give it back without any hassle, just in case.
    Well, I’m still doomed to see ads for UPS boxes all over the net, and I’m beginning to feel rather annoyed after all those weeks. Those marketing geniuses are missing some boolean bit of information for “Hey, that guy probably turned around on that topic. It’s way too long since he even bothered klicking on one of our ads” in their databases. 

  9. Great post John.  I think what a lot of people miss in this argument is that all this is not in the least new.  When you traverse from store-to-store in the physical world you are indeed being tracked.  In online the average network ‘suspects’ your a male, 34 years old, with a specific income.  They don’t know your name or address and in fact have probably gone out of their way make sure they don’t know it.  In the real “safe” world, your credit card moved from store-to-store not only recording your most personal purchases but your actual name and address is making its way around in the recesses of data aggregation companies – as it has for decades.   You feel ok with the real world tracking because you make believe its not happening, or you are willing to trade the convenience of the credit card for all that comes with it.  Online – no different.

  10. Hi John, I was watching a Google Hangout where Jeff Moore mentioned your book ‘The Search’, and since I will be shortly applying to work at Google, I bought a digital edition of it and read it. I have now begun reading your blog, and want to let you know that it’s not only great to see some very lively and interesting discussion in these comments, it’s amazing how frequently you yourself reply! 🙂

    On this topic, I am particularly interested in what winterbagel and Nathan brought up. My two cents: many of the emotional reactions involved here seem to arise as a result of people not realising how much information they are willingly providing when using services, and then finding out in a very surprising and, to them, invasive manner. To be fair, relevant advertising has supported many free services and has done so at _least_ since radio. It’s only now that the use of the service itself can provide phenomenally personal information–which is most visible when this information is used to target ads–that people care.

    While I understand this concern, there’s a point where I can’t really empathise because I know that everything I do on the web is potentially freely available information to whatever service I’m using unless promised otherwise. And I know that it can take a LOT of effort to produce these services and it’s only natural that some trade be involved. But perhaps many a layman user has not fully understand how this happens due to the technical complexity of the service and/or lack of transparency on how it works, and this may have engendered a culture of entitlement to the service without provision of anything in return–especially private information! Of course I know it’s not quite as simple as that, I only wanted to pitch in my view of that _part_ of it. I’m optimistic that the industry will indeed continue to improve these systems though; and if they don’t then one way of looking at it is that it leaves an interesting opening in the market!

    Appropriately enough, it all reminds me a lot of the start of Chapter 8: Search, Privacy, Government, and Evil in ‘The Search’ 😉 so thanks again for that and for this discussion!

  11. Perhaps this is splitting hairs but I view this a bit differently. The opt in/out feature is about choice, do you want to participate in a customized service (experience/preference)? It’s not specific to privacy and/or security which is the end point.

    As long as the user has the power (independence), we have the right rhythm.

    1. Right now, I’m not sure most users even realize they have that power. I hope that is going to change.

  12. A few quick thoughts about “tracking”:

    1. Just because we are tracked with credit cards it doesn’t mean we have no interest in privacy.
    2. One of the biggest issues is the asymmetrical knowledge about who is tracking what and who is buying that information.
    3. If presented in a more explicit manner people might be willing to pay for content rather than sell their personal information to all bidders.
    4. As always, time will tell. 

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