Behavioral advertising, or, to use the more sinister-sounding term favored by many media outlets, "behavioral targeting," has been a topic of interest at the FTC since at least 2006, when the consumer protection agency began holding hearings about how online technology raised consumer privacy issues.
The FTC held further meetings, specifically about online ads, in 2007 and last month issued a report outlining self-regulatory principles for online advertisers. Industry organizations and privacy groups have likewise recently weighed in with suggested rules.
One of the goals of such rules is to avoid being associated with companies like NebuAd and Phorm, which practice a more controversial form of behavioral advertising based on information collected through agreements with Internet users' ISPs.
And as Google concedes, it hasn't been easy to find the right balance between the interests of advertisers and consumers.
"Providing [interest-based] advertising has proven to be a challenging policy issue for advertisers, publishers, Internet companies, and regulators over the last decade," said Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel, in a blog post. "On the one hand, well-tailored ads benefit consumers, advertisers, and publishers alike. On the other hand, the industry has long struggled with how to deliver relevant ads while respecting users' privacy."
Eager not to be associated with contentious advertising practices, Google characterizes its interest-based advertising as a way to make ads more relevant and useful.
"We believe there is real value to seeing ads about the things that interest you," explained Susan Wojcicki, a VP of product management at Google, in a blog post. "If, for example, you love adventure travel and therefore visit adventure travel sites, Google could show you more ads for activities like hiking trips to Patagonia or African safaris. While interest-based advertising can infer your interest in adventure travel from the Web sites you visit, you can also choose your favorite categories, or tell us which categories you don't want to see ads for." To counter potential criticism, Google has taken steps to offer some transparency into how it delivers ads and to give consumers some measure of choice, and control. It has, however, made one important choice for its users by forcing them to opt out of behavioral ads rather than inviting them to opt in.
Google provides information about how it serves ads through the Ads By Google link that accompanies Google ads. It also created a tool called the Ads Preference Manager, which allows users to "view, delete, or add interest categories associated with your browser so that you can receive ads that are more interesting to you." And it provides users with the option to opt out from the receiving the AdSense/DoubleClick cookies used to track user interests.
Because the user's opt-out choice could be deleted if the user clears all the cookies stored in his or her browser, there's also a browser plug-in to permanently opt out of such cookies.
Users have long had choice and control with regard to advertising through ad-blocking software like Adblock Plus. But the alternative offered by Google may convince some Internet users that they don't need to opt out of Internet advertising entirely. That could be good for Google's bottom line, particularly if users provide preference information through the new Ads Preference Manager that the company didn't already know.
Boosting the bottom line is what interest-based advertising is all about. As Google product manager Aitan Weinberg puts it in a blog post directed at Google's AdSense publishing partners, "Advertisers spend more money on campaigns that reach the right audience; helping them do that should drive more revenue to your Web sites."
Given the economic situation at the moment, Google's move into interest-based advertising should receive a warm welcome.
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