Paging Through The Privacy Conundrum

Most ad networks and behavioral tracking technologies actively reject the notion that they collect personally identifiable information. But when it comes to phone directories, PII is the point. So a person search site like WhitePages.com not only publishes where I live but also my job title, the company I own and a phone number. And just in case you can't find me, there is a handy map to my house. And if I decide to identify myself to the site and create a deeper profile for myself, then WhitePages.com has a ton of PII plus whatever search history I have accrued. What is the proper use of such data?

That is the sort of question that prompted the company to hold its own privacy panel last month in Seattle. Director of Advertising Strategy Ingrid Michelsen tells us how the company is sorting through the privacy debate and hoping to become an industry leader in protecting privacy while also monetizing inventory.

Behavioral Insider: How does WhitePages.com currently use behavioral targeting?

Ingrid Michelsen: We're primarily a people search site. We partner with business listing providers like SuperPages. Something like 70% of our searches are people search, and then 30% business search. We don't sell business listings at all. So that poses an interesting challenge for us to offer premium targeting to our advertising partners. We partner with SuperPages to put behavioral tracking on their results pages when our users do a local business search from our site. We can do all sorts of interesting [segments] combining lookups for toy stores, babies, retail shops -- and build what we call the 'new family life stage segment.'

We can leverage all those search behaviors in terms of targeting the banner ad media on the WhitePages.com people searches. Financial services, the biggest thing they look for in BT are people who are in the midst of major life changes. So we built a moving segment, people looking up moving companies, realtors, mortgage brokers. We also have a getting married segment.

BI: Why did you need to convene a privacy panel?

Michelsen: We held it on June 4 in downtown Seattle. We wanted to get the people in charge of privacy issues or media buying and a broad set of perspectives on this issue. We just launched in beta the ability for people to list their cell phones on our site. In the second phase they will be able to list it in a masked way via an SMS alert. So you could have them click to call someone's cell phone and then it will be an SMS relay that sends me a message that someone is calling -- do you want them to reach you?

In the next phase, you will have people adding and editing their details however they would like, their social networking links and email addresses. Which is all to say that it opened cans of worms in terms of privacy and fraud protection on the product side.

And then, on the advertising end, I wanted to figure out how we could combine the fact that we now know much more about these people. We have a lot of data in our database about people. When they self-identify, we could just cookie them and drop gender or household income and combine that with their behaviors. But is that something that would freak out our users, and is that the right thing to do?

BI: As a publisher, do you feel that online is being held to a higher standard than direct marketing or mail marketing before it?

Michelsen: People will give away their social security number at a [retail] point of sale just to get a 15% one-time discount. That goes in a database and it gets resold. They are not aware all this stuff is happening. And they know everything about you, your address, name, and your whole PII. Online is a world where very sensitive and technologically savvy folks talk a lot about all the potential for disaster, and then the media gets a hold of it and then legislators get nervous and then consumers hear about it. But they don't understand how the major players responsible for 85% of the traffic on the Internet don't need PII to bring value to advertisers.

BI: Well, yes, it may seem unfair, but online companies still have to deal with the sensitive users.

Michelsen: True. Then we have to talk about how we communicate what is actually happening in a transparent way to consumers without going overboard. How do we communicate what is really happening to non-tech-savvy legislators so they don't legislate things that are impossible to implement? The bad actors are more the people who are conducting fraud activities online. I think people are conflating the issues. Behavioral tracking and targeting is very different. Delivering more relevant ads is very different from people pfishing for your bank account information, and people don't really understand that.

BI: You discussed the risks of transparency. Some of the things you are contemplating for WhitePages.com could be red flags for users. How are you using this recent immersion in privacy issues to guide your course?

Michelsen: We are in heated debates internally, trying to figure out the best way to do things. We would like to be a real leader in this space and as proactive as possible without confusing people in communicating what we are doing. We are probably not going to follow the idea of dropping non-PII information in cookies of those who self-identify on the site without notifying them.

We are more likely to ask if you would like to add, edit, delete, or build out your online contact information on WhitePages.com, we would like some kind of payment. And that payment may be in the form of micropayments, but probably not. So the payment would be, tell us a little bit more about yourself so we can deliver more valuable advertising and know that we won't be using your personal information. So we probably will make it more user-supplied, vs. the idea we had about just using all the data we had.

BI: There seems to be the risk of raising concerns just by addressing the issue with users.

Michelsen: The beta cell phone program has had solid uptake, even though we don't have the SMS relay in place. We think that is because there are a lot of small-business owners with personal and work cell phones. They actually want to be contacted on their cell phone because they don't have a landline any more and are perfectly willing to put their info out there publicly.

The average consumer is not interested in putting their general cell phone number out there for everyone to see. The interesting thing about the cell phone from our perspective is that we know what carrier a phone number is. Think how wonderful that would be, for Sprint to conquest-target the Verizon people.

Again, when the customer enters that info are they aware, are we making them aware, that the information is available to us? And how do we want to make them aware, and what is the risk? The major risk is, they might assume that we are doing something bad with that information -- and in the limited real estate you have on the Internet, how do you explain every little thing?

They have easy access to the privacy policy. That is a real challenge, because you don't want to scare users. We don't want to say we are collecting everything about you and we will target ads, and that is the way it is. That is the price for using the information for free.

Ideally, we would like to give people options. You can tell us everything about you, and be willing to have your carrier tracked and your basic information and your search behaviors. Or you can pay us five cents for every look-up, and give people the option to opt-out.

But that doesn't solve [the problem] for the major ad networks that are tracking the same kinds of information. It is just site-specific. I would like that to be an easy thing to do, but it is costly to build those systems. We prefer philosophically to remain free.

Recommend (1)