In March this year Google has announced the launch of a Beta test for an “Interests-Based Advertising” program trough which Google will start delivering advertisement to users based on users profiles and previous behaviour in the web. This announcement is nothing but the much delayed entry of Google in the Behavioural targeting arena, a space where Google’s competitors have already entered for some time, but, first things first, what exactly is behavioural targeting?
Behavioural targeting is a growing jargon in the internet world used to describe a technique used by advertisers, publishers and advertising networks to increase the effectiveness of its ad campaigns by using information of the users’ browsing behaviour to decide which ads are more relevant to that specific user. That information can include the sites that a user has visited, the pages he has seen or the past search behaviour of that user. When talking about behavioural targeting it is also important to distinguish between 2 types of behavioural targeting: Onsite Behavioural targeting and Network behavioural targeting:
Onsite Behavioural Targeting consists in applying behavioural targeting techniques to websites with the objective of increasing the site’s conversion efficiency by delivering the right content to the right user, and it can be done in 2 ways: 1) By using website analytics to divide the website visitors into different user profiles and then deciding on the best content to deliver to each of those profiles (users will then be identified by a cookie and the content will be delivered to them based on a pre-determined set of Rules) and 2) By using self-learning BT systems, which consistently monitor users behaviour and conversions onsite and learn what are, for each behavioural pattern, the best conversion possibilities. The content delivered for each user will then be determined by the user behavioural pattern and the content that is most likely to generate a conversion for that behavioural pattern.
Network behavioural targeting: Advertising networks due to their nature can leverage the vast catalogue of publishers and websites to develop a rich profile of the internet users and monitor the users browsing behaviour and deliver more relevant advertising to the users based on that information. This is normally done by storing a cookie in the users browser that will track the websites, and pages the user visits, within the network. With that information the network will then be able to profile those users interests and deliver him more relevant ads.
With the launch of Interest based advertising Google’s objective is to increase the relevancy of the ads it delivers in its AdSense content network and in Youtube and thus increase the value it delivers to the Advertisers, since it allows them to more efficiently connect to a base of people who are interested in their products, and to the publisher sites since, by more efficiently connecting advertisers and users, they will increase their advertising revenues. The bottom Line: Google’s final goal is to increase its advertising revenues.
Up until now, Google has been delivering advertising mainly based on the context, for example in its search Engine Google delivers ads based on what the users are searching in that specific time and in it’s AdSense content Network and Youtube Google delivers ads based on the content of the page the user is visiting at the time, so, up until now Google has been delivering advertising based on the users’ interests in a specific moment.
With the “Interests-Based Advertising” model Google uses the Double-click cookie, which is installed on users browsers when they visit a Google Content Network partner site, to track the users online activities within the content network. With that information Google associates that user with specific interest categories (based on the websites and pages the user has visited) and, from than on, whenever the user visits a Google Content Network site or YouTube, Google will recognise the user trough the Double Click Cookie and deliver the user ads that are relevant to his identified interests. Another possibility Google is offering with this model is for advertisers to deliver ads, on the Google Content Network and YouTube, based on the user’s previous interactions with that specific advertiser, for example if a user has visited the a specific telecoms company website, that company will be able to deliver special offers ads to that users within Google Content Network and YouTube (also counting on the Double Click cookie to recognise the users).
The interesting thing about Google’s Interest based advertising is not the innovation character of the use of Behavioural targeting in advertising networks, in fact, several major players like Yahoo and Microsoft have been using BT for quite sometime, what is really interesting about Google’s Interest Based advertising is the way Google is approaching BT. There is a reason why Google has only now launched a BT initiative, in the past Google has been extremely wary about using BT in its ads. When, in 2007, Google announced they were testing a new advertising feature that delivered ads based not only on the specific search term in the users queries, but also on the immediately previous search, Susan Wojcicki, Google’s VP of product management for advertising stated that Google was “shying away ” from the industry race for BT, she added this test would be restricted to searches performed in one session, nothing would stored or remembered. The reason behind this was simple, even though BT has been seen as a great revenue generator for advertising networks, it also poses serious privacy concerns for the users, in fact, research from several sources like Truste, a non-profit organisation dealing with online safety and privacy, indicate a great deal of user discomfort with the monitoring of their online activities. Truste has indicated in a report that 71% of the people are aware that their browsing activity is monitored in order to deliver them more relevant ads and that 57% are not keen to have their browsing activities monitored even if the information collected is not personable identifiable information. On another hand, this report also indicated that the vast majority of users did not like irrelevant ads considering them intrusive and annoying.
Google, couldn’t afford to keep avoiding behavioural targeting, it was a great revenue generation opportunity and its major competitor where already using it which could lead them to doing to Google what Google did to Overture by providing more targeted and relevant ads to its users. On the other hand, Google’s user centric approach has always been a key factor for Google success, more than that, Google’s enormous user base was key factor to guarantee its leadership in the market and its advertising revenue stream, the major source of income for the company. Google couldn’t afford to loose its “Do no Evil” image and risk loosing users due to the problems related to privacy that could rise from behavioural targeting schemes.
What Google did, and that is where Google innovated, was to build its Interest based advertising scheme with a great focus on the users and their privacy concerns by basing it in 3 core pillars: Transparency, Choice, and Control.
Google is delivering on the transparency promise by having in all its ads a link Google ads that links to an area where users have access to all the information about how Google serves ads, and by having inside Google.com detailed information in plain language, simple to understand and in a user friendly way (using videos, simple FAQ’s) about the Interest based advertising in an area dedicated to users “Ads preferences” and by having a Google Youtube Channel specifically dedicated to privacy issues where users can go to now learn how Google deals with privacy in a user-friendly and engaging way.
The other key pillar Google defined was Choice, the choice the user must have to decide which ads are delivered to him, and in order to give users that power, Google created the Ads preferences Manager, a tool for users to view what interests are associated to them and add or delete interests to that list. With this Google is not only providing the user with a choice, it is giving users a way to help Google perfect the system.
Finally Google also provided users with a way for them to fully Control whether or not they are targeted by Interest based ads by providing them with an opt-out tool that will install a cookie on the users computer that will prevent that user from being tracked, in addition to that Google as also created an Opt-out plugin users can install that will permanently opt-out those users even if they clean the cookies on their computer.
By directly and clearly tackling with the users fears of privacy intrusion and questions about the use that is done with their data, Google is establishing a new pattern for the way BT is done and also fully applying the User Centric approach it has accustomed its users to and was in the basis of it success, more than that Google is reinforcing its “Do no Evil” positioning by raising the standards used for dealing with users privacy online. In my opinion other players will be forced in the future to follow this strategy, if not by industry regulators or legislation, by the users themselves, in the meantime, we must wait for Google’s beta test to end and spread it to more advertisers to really start to learn the real results of this model and its implications for advertisers, publishers and Google.
I leave you with some interesting links regarding this issue: