In 1997, the web was easy. Everyone’s Amazon home page was the same. Everyone’s Google results were the same. It was the golden age of the universal web. Back then, we were just amazed to have the web.
But my, how the web has grown. Today, it adapts to us. Google search emphasizes local results, and gives priority placement to sources from your own social graph. Amazon knows what you recently bought and suggests similar purchases.
As the web becomes more personal, people are starting to raise concerns about privacy. Google, for example, wants to aggregate all of your behavior on Google properties, essentially giving you one Google superpersona, uniting streams of activity from search, YouTube, Picnik and other sites.
And many are concerned about third-party cookies, which allow advertisers to follow you around the web. Remember those shoes you viewed at Zappos.com? They’re showing up in a banner ad while you’re reading gossip on Gawker.com. That’s how the third party cookie works. An ad network uses relationships with many websites to place – and then check – cookies on your computer, so it can remind you about those shoes.
There’s an invisible line between the universal web and the targeted web. Let’s call it the “creeped out” line. That’s when the web knows just a little bit too much about us and our interests for our comfort. The problem is, we all have a different threshold for when that line is crossed. And there’s no way to pull the slider back just a little. As a result, consumers feel powerless, and now there’s talk to regulate online privacy in Europe. In the U.S. And on mobile devices, where there’s an apparent free-for-all going on with our personal data.
We can make a couple of conclusions about privacy. First, to the registration websites the spoils go. When consumers voluntarily give you detailed personal information, you’re in the catbird’s seat. Amazon, for example, has granular information about your online behavior and purchasing habits. They know what you do on their site and what you buy. They even have your credit card number. So does iTunes. This is far more useful than just a third-party cookie, because it is linked to an actual identity. Google, too, is poised to be a big winner, via its increasingly pervasive services, such as GMail and Google Wallet, that keep you logged in.
Second, to me this is push advertising’s last stand. Push advertising is the “classic” ad model, where advertisers chase you, interrupt your primary activity and try to win your attention. But the story of the web is also about empowering the audience to seek relevant messages and to avoid the noise. I advocate an inbound approach in my classes, emphasizing the creation of relevant, useful content and being findable, especially by search engines. I subscribe to the notion, advocated by Edelman, that every company is a media company. Of course, most marketers will use a mix of inbound and outbound approaches. For example, I like outbound email campaigns, which can be effective since they reach a specific audience that has opted in to receive your messages.
If the regulators step in, it will greatly weaken the advertiser-supported web – although that may not be an altogether bad thing.
If you’re concerned about targeting, what can you do?
If you spend a lot of time online, you should educate yourself about tracking technologies. The Wall St. Journal ran an excellent series about a year ago called What They Know. More recently, University of Pennsylvania professor Joseph Turow has published The Daily You: how the new advertising industry is defining your identity and your worth.
If you’d like to be less visible to tracking, log out of pervasive services like Amazon, Google and Apple. Periodically delete your cookies in your browsers. You may want to use one browser for shopping and another for work. I primarily use Google Chrome for daily web surfing, but occasionally use Firefox, which is configured to wipe my history and cookies at the end of each session. Many browsers have a “stealth” or “incognito” mode which masks your identity. When you do all this, be prepared: many of the things you do online will will take longer, will require more steps: you will have forsaken the power of the targeted web.
In my quest to better understand the ad networks, I’ve installed a plug-in called Ghostery in my browser. It reports which companies are tracking me when I visit a site. (to better understand these networks, check out this excellent infographic at wsj.com).
And, of course, you can take it off line. Pay cash. That’ll make your trail turn cold.