The issue of privacy has long been the online industry's proverbial "elephant in the room," the big looming animal that everybody knows is there but that no one is willing to acknowledge. There are several reasons why this is so: first, that users have, for the most part, been slow to appreciate how much we marketers are now able to know about them, plus the fact that the number of spectacular privacy breaches have fortunately been few.
But there's a third reason that privacy isn't taken seriously in this industry: Nobody's figured out how to build a business around it. This has to change before the industry can move ahead and avoid the inevitable privacy backlash that could burn us all to a crisp: here are a few suggestions for monetizable, privacy-enhancing Web-based services.
1. Secure Social Networks. Imagine being able to sign up for a social network that truly respects the fact that you, and you alone, have the right to control all of the data about your identity. Nobody (not even the site's administrator) has the right to inspect this data, and no information about your activities or shopping activities is passed or even recorded; plus there's no pressure on the site to open your personal area to advertising of any kind, because the freight is paid for by subscriber fees. Of course, such a social network would not be able to grow virally (because a fair number of people you invite into it might not elect to pay the fee). But ask yourself this: Would you rather spend your time networking with people who are serious enough about social networking to pay a few dollars a month to do so, or do you really want to waste time with a bunch of low-rent losers from your old high school?
2. Secure Search Engines. Ask.com may have a laughable share of search query volume, but it demonstrated beyond a doubt this week that its heart is in the right place when it rolled out Ask Eraser, a feature which lets users wipe out their search query records. By throwing down the privacy gauntlet to Google and Yahoo, Ask.com seized the moral high ground and is on the road to proving that holding on to search query data for extended periods is a pointless practice that has no real impact on the user's experience. Right now, Ask.com is running very high on my list as a preferred search engine, because what I search for is my business and nobody else's. Frankly, I hope that Ask.com doubles its search query volume (and PPC ad revenues) because of Ask Eraser; this is the best idea to come down the pike in a long time.
3. Secure Mobile Devices. Like you, I pay a considerable amount of money to my cell carrier each month to stay connected. And I'd pay a considerable surcharge on top of this to guarantee that I'm not going to be annoyed by whatever kooky advertising schemes get cooked up by mobile marketers. My phone is the lifeline to my personal and business life, and I'm not about to let this line become tangled by disruptive, distracting advertising. Sure, if I had no life at all, I might consider letting advertising knock my monthly bill down by a few dollars, but my time is valuable enough for me to pay a few bucks extra to keep the creepy marketers away.
4. Secure ISPs. ISPs know more about you and me than Google or any other search engines. Now they're being wooed by shadowy behavioral targeting firms that promise them a few extra bucks in exchange for the right to resell our user data to third parties. If I ever get word that my ISP is doing this kind of dirty double-dipping, I will switch my account to another ISP in a couple of nanoseconds. Frankly, I don't know why ISPs seem so quick to put in jeopardy the lifetime customer value that they worked so hard to earn in the first place. I guess greed knows no bounds these days. But show me an ISP that provides me with an ironclad safeguard against commercial snoopers, and they're likely to have a paying customer for life.
Do I have any takers for these privacy-enhancing, money-making ideas? Have I omitted others that you think would be successful? Post your answer to the Search Insider blog, or send me an e-mail at my address below.