Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Google, Privacy and Profits

If you use Gmail, do you ever feel a little creepy when some word or phrase contained in an email you've received makes an ad with that word appear on your screen? The first time it happened to me, I truly did feel a little invaded. A friend had sent me an email about our sons who were both looking for apartments in Los Angeles. Ads for apartments and rental services appeared in the right-hand page margin.

I"m used to that sort of thing happening now. But an article in the Wall Street Journal (Google Agonizes on Privacy as Ad World Vaults Ahead - August 10, 2010 - front page) details how Google has tried to keep the creepiness factor down. The company has refrained repeatedly from using the vast amount of data it has on its users to sell highly profitable, highly targeted ads. But now, that all may change due to a vision statement that is being debated inside the company.

We have entered the world of a commercial Big Brother as all our movements around the Internet are tracked, and the pages we interact with lead companies to send us highly targeted ads. Google has let other companies (mostly small upstarts) lead the way on this, while it holds back thinking still that it must not be evil. But is it evil to deliver highly targeted ads? I must say that I would love to be spared ads about erectile dysfunction, losing weight, making money working from my desk or attending a for-profit college with a so-called "grant". Yet, I don't want any strange company to know everything about me. There's certain information I refuse to share and I don't want shared.

That's why I never join the various groups on Facebook. The fine print says once I do, I'm giving Facebook permission to share my list of friends and likes and personal information with the company sponsoring the group. Sorry. That is not for me. According to the WSJ article, Facebook uses and shares all the information it picks up every time you click a 'like" button. Creepy or OK?

Having worked in advertising and marketing for much of my career, I've spent countless hours working with media experts in analyzing how to best target ads. I once developed an algorithm to deliver print ads geographically to the areas with the highest potential to purchase my client's product. I worked with a computer geek to input the raw data and come out with usable intelligence for allocating our media dollars. With Google, DoubleClick and other targeting abilities, advertisers can now pinpoint individuals. They do this with tracking cookies and follow you around the internet and report back on your meanderings and interactions. Coolies are an amazingly valuable tool.

The question is how much does the practice of using personal information and cookies impinge on our personal privacy -- and should we care? If you write something on Facebook, Gmail or Twitter, do you want that information to help marketers sell you stuff? Do you want the government asking the companies for the information to see if you're a terrorist or a criminal?

I know cookies are tracking me. I searched on cable internet the other day via Yahoo!, and now get lots of cable internet display ads almost every time I visit Yahoo!

When I was a kid and read "Brave New World" and "1984" and watched Star Trek, I was fascinated and a little frightened by the concepts of interactive TV, computers, surveillance and silicon-based life. I think we now have silicon-based life, and it lives in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, Seattle and Redmond. Will its invasion into my life be for the better? I'm not sure.

At least Google is wrestling seriously with this issue. Read more at the Wall Street Journal:
Post your comments. Think about what you want for your business and your life.

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