Last week, Google announced it will start to offer what it calls interest-based advertising through its network of AdSense partners and on YouTube. With the move, Google taps further into its unequaled database of Web behavioral data by end-users, aiming to increase the economic value of the advertisement space for its AdSense partners, and using the same to monetize traffic on YouTube. The use of the database for YouTube is maybe least remarkable considering Google’s problems to make money on the leading global video platform. Some of the features of the program for end-users are remarkable and positive from the end-user’s perspective but it is important to acknowledge their limitations.
Relation with acquisition of DoubleClick
The move is partly a result of Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, one of the biggest players in the field of online advertising that used behavioral targeting for many years. The new service seems to use some of DoubleClicks technology, including the cookie that is used to track end-user behavior. Google has been less clear about the data collection architecture. Does the use of one cookie for tracking imply that the underlying database of click-streams on the Google AdSense network and on DoubleClick customers have been integrated or are ready to be integrated?
Users in control
Google’s interest-based advertising service has been praised because it offers end-users access and control over their profiles and offers an opt-out. True, this is a remarkable move, as no competitor in behavioral targeting was doing this yet. Most competitors do not place as much emphasis on their relation with end-users as Google does. By putting users in control, Google strikes a new balance between the interests of advertisers and content producers on the one hand, and end-users on the other hand. It will be interesting to see if DoubleClick will make a similar move towards end-users.
Still, I am skeptical how substantial these controls really are. First, end-users only get access to the tip of the iceberg of the technological and behavioral data-processing architecture. Consider this quote from Search Engine Land about a Q&A with Google:
[C]an an advertiser pass along a specific ad to a specific user? For example, can I show an ad for the Sony HDR-XR200V if this user added the Sony HDR-XR200V to their shopping cart on my site but did not check out? Bender said yes, but ultimately it is up to the advertiser how specific they want to get with those ads.
That means that advertisers have more control over targeting than end-users do. I would be able to access and control my interest categories, such as the category “Video Players & Recorders”. Advertisers and e-commerce sites that use the program can reach me through much more granular controls facilitated by Google. To some extent, the control and transparency is merely a façade, behind which a (for the end-user) opaque sophisticated data processing architecture is doing the real work.
Opting out – of what?
Of course, there is the option of opting out through a special cookie and Google has designed (with the help of EFF) a browser plug-in to ensure that opt-outs are persistent for end-users that regularly delete their cookies. An opt-in model is not considered to be economically feasible. I would not be surprised if research would show that expected opt-out numbers would be around the same level as expected opt-in. The large majority of end-users will simply not notice anything of the targeting based on their browsing. You can make as many videos as you want, there is a limit to the number of people you will be able to reach if you do not force them to listen before making them subject to certain treatment.
Apart from the many shades of gray between an opt-in and an opt-out, we should ask ourselves what the offered opt-out really means. Does it mean that Google stops to target ads based on a profile of the interests of end-users, which is derived from the navigational history of end-users? Yes, it does. Does it mean that Google will stop to collect those same click streams? No, I do not think so. These click streams will still end-up in Google’s database, (without a unique cookie id). Google will still show ads, and it will still need logs for its AdSense accounting, click fraud prevention, service management and research. In addition, it’s hard to imagine opting out of Google’s immense network of services in way that does not allow these logs to be correlated with individual end-users. In other words, the opt-out only touches a tip of the iceberg of data processing that is taking place.