Google Watches Its Language

Last week I dipped my toe into the emerging world of consumer opt-in/opt-out through BlueKai's very attractive consumer-facing interface. BlueKai is trying not only to simplify the process of managing one's online behavioral profile, but to incentivize consumers to opt-in. Everyone seems to agree now that behavioral tracking companies and ad networks must learn to explain to consumers more plainly what they are doing in background on a browser. But the industry is only starting to struggle with the language it needs to illustrate concepts and options without overwhelming or alienating users. BlueKai's approach was abbreviated and simple. This week we go to the opposite extreme perhaps. Google's approach is verbose and intricate, but the portal is also very, very careful with its words.

When Google announced several weeks ago it would be leveraging behavioral data in its off-site ad networks, the company wisely married the announcement to a new "Ads Preferences" page. Located at www.google.com/ads/preferences, the site has both educational resources and tools that let users control the "interests" Google does and doesn't track.

The Google key words for behavioral targeting are "Interest-Based Advertising." In fact, almost all of the material here goes out of its way to avoid the "B" word and the "T" word. You have to admit, this makes some sense. "Behavioral" as a term still connotes B.F. Skinner psych theory, while "targeting" is a metaphor for consumers that only a marketer could love. In what must be a first for BT, however, Google offers an instructional video of the cookie-tracking process, hosted by Shuman Ghosemajumder, the Business Product Manager for Trust and Safety.

It is easy enough to make fun of Google's joyless video stylings. After all, this clip has the friendly feel of airline safety instructions. At one point it even brings us to a whiteboard. Yes, a whiteboard. Where is that Duck and Cover turtle when we need him -- or even Microsoft Office's Clippy?

In fact, the video gets some things very right and reminds us how important language choice will be in engaging consumers. Ghosemajumder walks us through the basics of cookie-ing and segmenting by cleverly conjoining the search experience with the ads. "Our goal is to help you, our users, find the information you are looking for. We do this by giving you search results but also by showing you ads that you might be interested in. Some of these ads are in sites around the Web." This may seem like a minor point -- but rhetorically, he has laid the groundwork for arguing that ads are content and that relevant ads have an inherent benefit to users.

Google's rhetoric carefully avoids use of "tracking," "following," or even "tagging" or "collecting" to describe this process. Google "remembers" your visit. Your cookie, by the way, is also humanized, because in Ghosemajumder's construction, it talks to Google but never "tells" Google who you are. Most of the time he does not even talk much about what is being stored on your cookie on your browser. Instead, he frames the process as putting your cookie into an interest category. Interestingly, what started as a cookie that Google "stores on your browser," quickly becomes "your cookie number" and then becomes "your cookie."

Just as interesting are the arguments that are not here. At no point is he suggesting that the ads pay for your free search services or even that there is a fair exchange of value. Google is not bartering with us. It is presenting itself as a partner in an effort to give you more relevant information. What is interesting to me about the pitch is how he elides publisher, consumer and advertiser interests pretty fluidly rather than suggesting any kind of natural conflict of interests, any intrinsic relationship that might require a barter, trade or negotiation.

Are such nuances at all important to conversations with consumers? Rhetoricians (whose job is to watch every word) would say that every word is a choice and every choice communicates different values and emphases. Language tactics help include and exclude certain concepts from an argument. What Google is trying to do here is reframe the concept of behavioral targeting into a concept that sounds softer and more friendly. It is wrestling with the larger problem of how to align advertiser and consumer interests in a convincing way.

On the other hand, Google can't help being Google. The Preference tool on the Ad Preferences page feels like an infinite tree of choices. Every category telescopes open to evermore granular ones you can add to the profile.

In response to last week's exploration of BlueKai's system, Scott Milener of AdRocket said "These dreams of consumers managing their 'ad' profiles is absurd - will NEVER happen en masse. People just want to ignore ads." This is true now, of course. And in the end, these sorts of preferences sites may just be like privacy policies, more for show and ass-covering than for real use.

Google made a fair pitch in the video for letting the consumer use "my cookie." But the benefit here remains too imprecise to inspire a consumer to opt-into anything -- let alone help them build my profile. Rhetoric can only be so effective in compelling action. If I am going to be Google's "partner," I think I'd prefer to be the silent kind.

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6 comments about "Google Watches Its Language".
  1. Mark Zagorski from eXelate , March 20, 2009 at 7:36 p.m.

    Interesting that the Google "Preference" tool has gotten so much buzz. Both Blue Kai and my company, eXelate (www.exelate.com/preference_management.html) have had similar tools for a while.

    The challenge is really the uptake for consumers, and the education process by which they learn about the option to manage this information, not just across one site (Google for all of its mass is still a small player in the dispay ad space) but across multiple ad networks and publishers. Centralized data exchanges like eXelate allow for this option, as would a tool driven by a network coalition such as the NAI.

    Empowering consumers, altough a "spacey" idea, per RocketFuel, still has its long term merits.

  2. Andre Szykier from maps capital management , March 20, 2009 at 8:53 p.m.

    Whittle down to the nub of the problem.
    As a web user, ads are 'forced' onto my visual space.
    This is the price I pay for 'free' web experience, whatever it is. My natural tendency is to ignore that portion of the space so I can attend to the stuff that is of interest.
    BT ads don't solve my need to ignore this stuff. Any user of Gmail can tell you that the ads served based on the email context are useless and sometimes laughable.

    So what can BT do that makes sense? Simple. Google should provide an alternative search modality which a user can opt in or out with a click. When you opt out, the standard text output from Google is adequate and they should improve this type of search result mode.

    However, if I am in opt-in mode, then BT can utilize targeting cookies, cross site tracking, history of views, time spent on views and so forth. Opening a window pane that works alongside your search activities (did I just describe the infamous AskJeeves butler?) could provide a nice tree structure of ads that could improve my decision making process.

    Look, if Google allows search users to set preferences (mostly to avoid porn), is this not different from preferences to manage ad content? Set the default to opt-out until you need it. Even if I set my preferences to "all", when I go back to Google, their cookie resets it to "standard".

    As far as I am concerned, they already have the solution, but somehow are reluctant to implement it for BT advertising. Ah! its about money that they get from their current key word auction model. So there you go... the solution exists, but the vendor does not want to rock the financial model.

  3. Robert Leathern from XA.net, Inc. , March 20, 2009 at 8:57 p.m.

    @Mark - love what you guys and Blue Kai and others are doing, and would love to see this happen with Google data where you could strip away the inventory from the data and let people optimize on both dimensions, but obviously any move Google makes around data or consumer preferences is going to be closely scrutinized and have a huge impact on the market as a whole. I think that a lot of the challenge is communicating effectively when people want that level of communication about what is happening and how/why. Rightly or wrongly, online will be help up to a higher standard than offline data practices typically have been - but we also as an industry have the ability to lead the way and create value much more quickly. The burden is still on us to show that we can actually use this data and create true consumer value - and that has not been proven effectively or consistently yet.

  4. Esther Dyson from EDventure , March 21, 2009 at 6:38 a.m.

    Thanks, Steve -

    Your comments on rhetoric are wonderful, but two counterpoints:

    First: Actually, the Berkman Center ran a cookie crumbles contest in the fall of 2007 wherein we (I was involved as instigator of the project but gave it to Berkman to avoiding "tainting" it with my commercial interests ;) ) hosted a YouTube video contest for people to explain how cookies work. More amazingly, we actually showed the results and selected the winners at the FTC's Town Hall hearing on behavioral targeting. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/esther-dyson/release-09-dis_b_71040.html .

    Second, you're exactly right that Google avoids making a one-way contract with the user: We'll follow you and show you the ads we know you want. The point that so many marketers miss is that the ads are not the point. The ads are merely reminders that the consumer is being followed surreptitiously. Consumers mind the sneaky *tracking,* not the ads. Once Google makes it explicit, the users can accept or reject the partnership.

    And by doing this, FWIW, Google is helping the whole market, including Exelate and BlueKai (and Cookie Crumbles) who have a tougher time capturing public attention.

  5. Joel Rubinson from Rubinson Partners, Inc. , March 21, 2009 at 9:29 a.m.

    I applaud the change in language. If marketers and researchers refer to people as "respondents" and "targets" we will think of them as objects rather than partners.

  6. Steve Smith from Mediapost , March 21, 2009 at 10:57 a.m.

    @ Esther: Thanks for the leas. Perhaps I will review those attempts to explain cookies in a future post.

    @ Everyone. As a number of posters reminds us in this and my last column, these exercises in consumer-friendliness are moot so long as cookie-cleaning just wipes out any opt-in/out preferences anyway and there is no centralized way to exercise granular control over all the networks. These early moves by select networks are just warm-ups for much more sophisticated implementations that would make them effective.