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August 7, 2007

Everyone’s talking About Behavioral Targeting. Again.

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I like when the conversation comes back around to behavioral targeting because it’s like the giant elephant in the room. We all know its there and that people are using it but we’re not supposed to talk about it. Behavioral targeting is marketer’s dirty little secret. Don’t look! No one’s collecting any information about you, honest.

Fine, so I’m being a touch dramatic but you can’t deny that behavior advertising is back in the conversation something fierce lately and people are getting all uncomfortable. We watched Yahoo released SmartAds, AOL acquired behavioral advertising firm Tacoda and just recently Google claimed it was "wary" of behavioral advertising (though they have no problem tracking users’ every movement). All the talk is making people nervous, so much so that the FTC is gearing up to hold a town hall meeting in Washington D.C. in early November to discuss the topic. Can you smell it? Can you smell the fear?

Personally, I’m all for behavioral targeting in most cases. When it’s done right, everyone benefits. Marketers are able to target users based on previous behavior, which in turns helps customers receive products and ads that are actually relevant to their interests. They get what they were looking for before they even realized they were looking for it. It’s scary but it’s cool. And frankly it saves me the time of trying to figure out what the heck it is I wanted in the first place.

Of course the issue that goes hand in hand with behavioral targeting is privacy. We want to make sure companies are disclosing their data collection practices to users. We want to know what type of information is being collected and whether or not it could be tied back to us. We want to know who has access to this information. We want to know lots of things that help to make behavioral advertising seem useful instead of creepy. I’m glad that Uncle Bob gives super awesome birthday presents, almost as if he "just knows" what it is I wanted, but I’m less impressed if he got that information by reading my diary without my permission. And I’m calling the police if he got his information by peeping through my bedroom window.

If you’re an Internet marketer, there’s nothing wrong with using behavioral targeting to help you present users with offers and services more relevant to them, but you have to be upfront.

Let them know that you’re collecting this data and include a detailed privacy policy describing how this information is going to be used, how long you’re going to keep it and who’s going to have access to it. Also, while I don’t necessarily have a problem with you tracking my movements through your site, Susan might so [I do. --Susan] give her an easy way to opt-out (and don’t make her feel guilty about it). Realize that, to avoid looking like a scary, creepy stalker, you’ll likely also have to define what these terms mean. Opt-out may be familiar terminology to you but it’s not to everyone. Some people actually have lives that exist outside the computer. I know.

The only time behavioral targeting concerns me is when users can’t turn it off and have no say in how their information is being used. It’s for this reason that the idea of Google going down the path of behavioral targeting scares me. Not because I don’t want them using the ridiculous amount of information they have on me, I don’t really care. It worries me for the other people. The people who are overly paranoid and don’t want anyone keeping track of their movements. If Google decided to start using the data it has on to you to "improve" your search experience then they could pretty much do whatever they wanted. It’s their engine. There’s no need for them to make you opt out of anything. If you want to "opt out" you have to go use Yahoo or Ask.com or Microsoft or something else. That’s an entirely new monster and very, very worrisome.

I’m curious to see what this two-day FTC town hall meeting will reveal. It’s supposed to bring together consumer advocates, tech experts, book nerds and industry representatives to discussion the consumer protection issues raises. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of it.





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