How Serious is Google About No Behavioral Targeting?

Last week, true to form, Google announced in no uncertain terms that it does not engage in behavioral targeting. Sort of.

For readers who missed Susan Wojcicki's announcement last Tuesday, I'll fill you in on the facts. Then I'll explain why we can expect Google to engage in far more behavioral targeting in the future.

Google's Announcement
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Susan Wojcicki, Google's vice president of product management, had made a dual announcement about Google ads and behavioral targeting (BT).

First, Wojcicki said, Google isn't delivering ads based on users' long-term search histories or Web use -- in Wojcicki's words, "Nothing is stored, nothing is remembered." (Wojcicki referred to this practice as "traditional behavioral targeting.")

Second, Wojcicki announced that Google will be targeting ads based on multiple searches within a single session. If you search in Google for "Italy vacation," for example, and then immediately afterwards you search for "weather," Google will assume your second search had something to do with your first. Google will combine your results, and your second search results might feature ads that deal with weather in Italy.

This mini-targeting only lasts the duration of one session: if you come back to Google for a new search session, the ads you see won't have anything to do with prior searches. Wojcicki says that limit is due to "a variety of reasons," one of which is Google's privacy concerns -- the deeper you delve into searchers' histories, the more personal data you'll necessarily touch upon.

And so Google's public stance on BT involves straddling a very thin line. Google wants to deliver just the right targeting to be more relevant. But it also isn't looking to go too deep. For now, that means Google limits behavioral ad targeting to a single search session.
No Google BT?
But even with Wojcicki's announcement, I'm doubtful that Google plans to stay out of "traditional" BT for good.

For starters, as many have pointed out, Wojcicki's announcement seems highly linked to the Federal Trade Commission's inquiry into whether Google should be allowed to acquire DoubleClick. Much of that inquiry is centered on how "GoogleClick" would deal with the wealth of online user information the joined entities would have access to. A firm Google position on user history would be a big help to Google's case -- both with the FTC, and with the privacy-concerned public.

It's also noteworthy that Wojcicki seems to have stopped short of ruling out traditional BT altogether. Reuters quotes Wojcicki as saying that BT "is not something that we have participated in," and that Google "always want[s] to be very careful about what information would or would not be used" within its results. She was not quoted as saying, explicitly, that Google would never engage in traditional BT in the future.

Then there's Personalized Search  -- Google's default for organic search results (provided that users are logged in to their Google accounts). Personalized Search looks through users' histories to understand what their keywords really mean, and uses those histories to deliver personally relevant results. To take a standard industry example, personalized results could apply a searcher's history to understand whether a search for "saturn" is a search for a planet or for a car.

If Personalized Search sounds a lot like behaviorally targeted search results, that's because it is.

Of course, Personalized Search only applies to organic results. And from a privacy standpoint, there's a major difference between behaviorally targeted organic results and behaviorally targeted ads. In behaviorally targeted organic search, the only organization that's privy to searchers' data is the engine itself. In behaviorally targeted ads, the advertisers also have some degree of access to searcher information. And as last summer's AOL data scandal showed, privacy breaches can happen when data is transferred across multiple parties. That scandal, you'll recall, happened when AOL searchers' data were leaked as AOL sent search query data to outside researchers.

Because of the privacy risks, Google will undoubtedly go slow when it comes to developing a behaviorally targeted ad system. (And they will be doubly cautious with privacy activists and the government looking on). But just because Google would have good reason to move slowly with regard to behaviorally targeted ads, that doesn't mean the company would never deliver them at all.

One last reason why it's likely that Google will develop traditional BT is that its strategists have been planning to do so for at least a few years. That, at least, is the gist of one final piece of evidence of Google's interest in BT: a patent application entitled "Determining ad targeting information and/or ad creative information using past search queries." 

That application was filed in October of 2005. Which seems to mean that the notion of Google behaviorally targeted ads is nothing new. It's also why we shouldn't be surprised when we see Google offering more behavioral targeting options over the coming years.




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