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Interest-Based advertising from Google

Today Google made public their plans to enhance their AdSense offering by refining the ads displayed based on a user's interest. An interesting development both in terms of additional opportunities for advertisers but also in terms of the impact on websites' privacy policies and users' identity management.

In blog post titled Driving monetization with ads that reach the right audience Google announced today that they intend to use information relating to a user's behaviour to choose which ads they display in their extended Content Network.

The fact that Google identifies user interests based on browsing habits is not new, and they have probably been using this information on their own websites to enhance the type of ads presented to users. What is new is extending this technology to the content network - to websites that are not controlled by Google.

Identifying and Managing Interest Categories

Google provides a very simple explanation of how they develop interest categories. Their blog post says: "As an example, if they visit a number of sports pages, we'll add them to the "sports enthusiast" interest category" - which seems innocuous enough.

They even provide an Ads Preferences Manager for users to access where we can see what interest's Google thinks we have and even volunteer information ourselves. Below is a screenshot of my Ad Preference Manager - despite being a heavy Google user and logged in most of the time it seems Google hasn't begun categorisation yet.

I can add interests myself and I can choose to Opt Out and there is plenty of information about what Google does and how I can control it.

The only catch, and it's a rather big one, is that if you opt-out you have to remember to opt-out on all the browsers you use and to opt-out permanently - because if you erase your opt-out cookie then you need to tell Google to re-insert it. To be fair Google makes this quite clear.

Issues for Website Owners

The second part of the Google announcement deals with actions that participants (publishers) in the AdSense network will have to take as a result of enabling interest-based ads on their website.

Website owners will need to change their own privacy policies to reflect the fact that Google is collecting this type of information. We received an e-mail early this morning to this effect pointing us to information about the cookies Google will use and about the need to make clear to our users that Google - a third-party Vendor - uses cookies to serve ads on our website and that this third-party vendor will collect information about our own visitors' browsing habits.

Now, this raises a couple of interesting issues.

1. Google is using information that website owners worked hard to collect to enhance their own product. They are essentially getting this information for free. Google can, of course, argue that the information enhances ads on publisher's website which should lead to better conversion rates and more revenue for publishers as well.

2. Publishers now need to make all sorts of strange announcements to their website visitors that may have varying reactions - and smaller publishers do not have the clout of Google or the anonymity of Google. They will actually have to talk "face-to-face" with their community about this. Something Google painstakingly avoids doing. I can already imagine that the forums members of ITALY magazine (a website we manage) will not be thrilled to know that their browsing habits are monitored even more.

Moving Forward

Don't get me wrong - I think what Google is doing is a reasonable step both for Google and for publishers. Better ads are better for users, publishers and Google. However, as I explained above there are several issues to be confronted because while the technology to collect information about users has grown in leaps and bounds the technology to allow users and website publishers to manage access to that information has not developed in the same way. I believe the answer is a technological one - where the tools to manage and protect our online identity become as sophisticated as the tools that aim to gain information about us and our habits.

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