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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chp 326. Targeted Ads versus Privacy

...exactly how far are you willing to go when it comes to invading the privacy of others? Or is invasion of privacy nothing but a natural outcome of our “tell-all, bare-all” attitude in the online world?

Behavioral targeting, reality mining, contextual advertising, semantic targeting… these are all what digital marketers of today are talking about every day. To keep it simple – these are the ways in which advertisers are reaching you as you sit in front of your computer screen browsing through various websites. In tomorrow’s online world, no longer will you see random banner ads about a product you are not interested in. Instead you will see a product that is relevant and more importantly, one that appeals to you.

Unlike TV, print and radio ads, digital marketing can be tailor-stitched to meet your exact whims and fancies.

For example, IP based advertising (known as Geotargeting) had been in practice for many years now. Have you ever visited one of those “shady” sites, you know, the ones that require you to click a button to enter only if you are above 18 (yeah riteee, like anybody’s gonna click the “I’m sorry, I’m not above 18” EXIT button! )

Once you’re in such a site, suddenly a pop-up button appears from below with the face of a hot semi-nude babe and she is crying out to you, “Hi, I’m Neha and I am from Mumbai (or whichever place you’re from). I’m feeling lonely tonight. Wanna chat?”

And of course many gullible surfers exclaimed, “How the eff does she know I’m from freaking Mumbai? Shit, this is so genuine, I am totally going for it!” And clicking that chat link takes them to probably a malware infected website or a porno site where the more desperate ones actually use their credit card to register and get scammed.

That is how people use Geotargeting to make a quick buck. And this has been implemented for many brands too, for example, if a particular brand goes for a PPC (pay per click) banner campaign whose target is only a population of a specific location (India, or even more specific like Mumbai).

Of course this method is a complete #FAIL if you are using IP scramblers, proxy servers etc. Still, the percentage of people who do that is miniscule compared to the number of netizens online.

And then you have the ever important contextual advertising. Take your Google Ads for example. If you insert a Google adsense code in your blog, the ads that appear there are relevant to your blog topic. Click on a different post of yours, and you will see different ads that are again relevant to your blog topic of that page.

Hence the logic is that people are reading your blog post because they like the particular topic, and hence they are more likely to click an ad on that page because it also talks about a similar topic as the post they are currently reading.

Likewise, search engines like Google use contextual advertisements not just on websites, but even on search results. Search for dogs on Google and apart from the results about dogs, you will also see a couple of ads for dogs at the side.

Of course the downside to this is that the article can have a completely different context, which may turn out to be a disaster for the advertisement in the end!


I too have seen wrong contextual ads a couple of times on my blog, hence the reason I have removed them now. Below is a print-screen of my blog many years ago . Click on pic to see the ad.

To solve this, many people are shifting to semantic targeting now. Unlike contextual ads, semantic targeting uses the semantic web (a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines). Hence it will try to analyze the context first using various filters and parameters and understand the entire sentiment of the content before throwing up appropriate ads.

Wiki clearly defines it:
A key difference between semantic targeting and contextual advertising system is that, instead of scanning a page for bidded keywords, a semantic system examines all the words and identifies the senses of those words, hence avoiding the potentially brand damaging occurrence of, for example, an airline advertising alongside a story about an air disaster.

Behavioral targeting - Now this is what opened the Pandora’s Box! Depending on your online behavior (your browsing history), you will be bombarded with ads that are similar to the pages you have visited. (Creepy, naw? )

All of us leave digital footprints whenever and wherever we go online, and it’s just a matter of cookies tracking our movement. Many people again consider this a breach of privacy and it has seen its fair share of controversy.

Suppose you view a couple of videos on YouTube, then the next time you come to the site, you will see a couple of “recommended videos” which are quite similar to the videos you have watched earlier. And this happens even when you are not signed in!

At least when you are logged in, your viewing history gets recorded in your account (similar to what and many others are doing). But when you are not signed in? How could that happen?

Again… cookies. YouTube too cleverly stated: “Remember, you will get better, more specific, and more consistent recommendations by logging in” on one of their help pages, hence, not denying at the same time either that you will still get recommendations even if you are not logged in

So now you cannot hide what you watch from your colleagues even when you’re not logged in, unless you know how to disable cookies etc. And when the boss comes over to your desktop to discuss work and she types YouTube on your browser to show you something…. Ooooooh embarrassing it can get!

[Related link you might find useful: How to delete your YouTube cookies without clearing all your other cookies]

Speaking of “cookie marketing”, I was a little surprised by this “invasion of privacy” though – committed by ClearTrip.

I’ve always respected the brand and they offer a really good service. And I am really impressed by their social media division, and how they would get back to complaints or conversations via their facebook and twitter accounts very promptly. Hence when I say this, I say it with good intentions -

The other day I was buying my tickets via ClearTrip. A direct flight from Mumbai to Aizawl. After that, whenever I visit other sites and I come across a ClearTrip media banner, I see the same “Book your flight tickets from Mumbai to Aizawl” shouting out to me!

Just wondering, what if I was booking my ticket slyly and didn’t want my Company to know about it (like, what if I was planning to elope to Mizoram with our Company coffee vending machine?) Anybody who uses my computer will see the banner, and since I am the only one from Mizoram, they will know it was me the ad was trying to target…

Whether it’s about simply deleting or blocking cookies or the fact that most organizations do keep a record of what their employees are doing anyway (just for argument’s sake), I do NOT feel comfortable at all seeing “Mumbai to Aizawl” ClearTrip banners at every site I visit (even if only people from my computer can see the banner).

[Click pic to enlarge]

But leave all that aside. I think the biggest controversy when it comes to behavioral targeting and privacy issues is faced by Facebook.

Based on your likes, dislikes, profile details, fan pages or groups you’re a member of etc, you will only see ads that are relevant to you. To cut a long story short, it has been revealed that even if you set your privacy so that your details do not get indexed, you will still see ads that are relevant to you! How so? Well, based on your friends’ data! If 10 of your friends like to play basketball, then there is a high chance that you too will like to play basketball, hence the reason why you are seeing the ad about basketball, even though you have “secured” your privacy settings!

Though you can no longer search for people based on sexual orientation, you can still find the sexual orientation of others even if you are not on their friend list through Facebook’s very own “targeted ads”.

And remember the recent “Sensitive information of 100 million Facebook users leaked” incident? Though it turned out to be nothing but somebody collecting the public info of Facebook users using a script, it was enough to give many a scare. And the day that “leaked”, the file (almost 3GB in size) was up on torrent within a few hours! And it still is.

Of course one simple solution to all this is – STOP giving out sensitive information about yourself online. But then, in today’s narcissistic age of online activity where we love shouting out to the whole goddamn world about what we had for breakfast, which pub are we currently at, the color of our lingerie, or even the fact that we just got dumped and are single and ready to mingle again, does it seem a bit like we really DO deserve to have our privacy invaded?

Ah… in times such as this, tell me where we should draw the line between respecting other people’s privacy and advertising. Or should a line be drawn in the first place at all? After all, everybody’s main aim is to monetize and earn as much as possible via advertising (unless you are working at a place called Twitter ). Google is about to generate $2.5 billion per annum through its display advertisement while Facebook is close behind with a $2 billion 2010 revenue.

To end it all, here’s a pretty good article that was written two years ago, which still makes sense today: Behavioral Targeting – Where’s the Fine Line?



Blind Dayze said...

Informative post...

was reading a post earlier in the day about facebook's foray into mail.. and as usual privacy issues crept up.. a comment that really had me nodding in agreement went something like "We are its product, not its customers..".. meaning that for companies like google..fb etc. their clients = advertisers.. users = products..

Mizohican said...

Very true. That's how things are in a user generated content world.

catherine said...

goood one! Worth visiting... I love that ''get the mumbai chicks ads/hello, we are in the same street ads'' on websites, lol..cos i've seen many people can't help clicking them.. :D
Clear idea i've attained from this post, thanks a lot..

Mizohican said...

Thanx catherine. I guess many of us guys are a sucker to such things :D

Maisek said...

I, for one, am shocked to learn that advertisers have actually invaded our privacy, getting information from our browsing history. I honestly consider this a breach of privacy! I believe most people deeply care about privacy online! I may do all sorts of things which I may not want anyone to know, oh! nothing out of the ordinary or unlawful, but mostly personal and private. I wouldn't want these things be made use of by advertisers!

Mizohican said...

Welcome to my world, dear :) You still wanna know how I found out who you were? :D :D :D

Maisek said...

No! Kima, in fact, I now could straight away speculate your source! Unlike YOU, and the advertising agencies, (lol) my side of investigation is not through the net! But I too have discovered quite a bit about you! :D :D :D

Mizohican said...

Hehehe... :) we live in an age where everyone's digging up the past (dirt or no dirt) of one another. Lolz :) And thats quite easy to do online :D

Roshni said...

Enjoyed some of the pieces is your blog , have been reading you off an on for a bit now. Thought of sharing a link to my blog

Some posts are on Saiha, Mizoram , where we are based out of currently. Would be great to hear from you

Mizohican said...

Hi Roshni, yes I have come across your blog before! I've subscribed to Google Alerts :) I love your writing and reading about your experience there. In fact I think I've commented on some of your posts too, or haven't I yet?

Xauz said...

Can't blame them.. If i were in their position, i will do the same. Besides some ads are irritating but some are useful for me..:)

jay-me said...

Nia....a soi ang xel hian....heh :)))

Mizohican said...

@ Xauz: yep there are quite a number of useful ads too. And happy birthday dude! :)

(See, similar to a comment like this wishing you a happy birthday on your birthday (today), people are now targeted with birthday ads on their birthdays once advertisers have their personal information)


@ jay-me: Dik chiah :)

Tharax said...

Nangni advertising agency ho hi in hlauhawm ru riuau dawn mai a.. Hehe!

So, is it like some ad companies are hunting for every inch of information available in public domain like the internet to further their interests?

Mizohican said...

Yes :D

Xauz said...

Pu Kim, ka birthday min wish na khi ka lo hmu lo..sorry lutuk.. Thank you em em em em em ee.. btw kolkatta airport a i kuhva ei tawh ngai lo ha min hmuh a min then khum thru kha i la hre mial em?? :))

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