Behavioral Focus: Their Eyes Were Watching Google

ISPs won't have their hands in the cookie jar

Who will be the next big players in the BT world? The smart money is on the ISPs. Just consider how BT networks operate. You know the basics. BT networks observe users' online behaviors to understand which advertisers should display which ads to specific users, at any given moment. Users' online histories serve as platforms for these targeted ads.

BT networks need two things to make those observations. First, they need a wide view of users' online activities - the more actions the network can follow, the more useful its data will be. That means they need access to large volumes of Web pages.

Second, BT networks need to be able to store their data effectively - so they can make use of their observations whenever they need to.

Currently, most BT networks face real hurdles on both fronts. No BT network covers every site on the Internet, so there's a limit to how many sites these networks can track. Meanwhile, as many as 30 percent of U.S. Internet users delete their cookies - creating limits on how much historical information BT networks can store.

An ISP-driven BT network would overcome both of these challenges. ISPs can see all the actions that their users take, on every Web site - whether you're talking about searches, clicks to a thank-you page, or nearly any other kind of engagement or action. And ISPs' historical data is, of course, ISP data - it's not cookie data that users can readily delete.

Since ISPs face nearly none of the data limitations that hold back the Web-based BT networks, the ISPs have a strong incentive to give BT a try. And with the top four ISPs servicing nearly 50 million subscribers, the financial potential of ISP-based BT is staggering. Indeed, some BT technology players - like Adzilla and NebuAd - are working with smaller ISPs already. And with the cable industry facing tough times as current revenue channels reach saturation, BT may be the shot in the arm that cable players desperately need.

For now, the ISPs aren't doing much with their users' data. There are a lot of reasons why that's so, not least of which is the privacy concerns that an all-knowing, all-retaining ad network would create. There's also the technical problem of distinguishing amongst multiple users from a single computer - a serious issue if you're in the business of personal targeting. 

But privacy concerns needn't be a showstopper. As Gmail showed the world, yesterday's "creepy" ads can become widely accepted with time.

The multiple user problem isn't insurmountable, either. There are many workarounds that ISPs can use to address the problem - but whichever solution they ultimately employ, the point to keep in mind is that where there's a financial will, there's a technological way.

To be sure, the ISPs won't be able to create BT networks entirely on their own. ISPs' subscriber bases offer huge inventories of users and user data, but won't provide the large numbers of advertisers, or the Web pages to run ads on, that a successful BT network needs. Any BT-hopeful ISP will have to get help from Web giants like Google, Yahoo and MSN (who I'm sure won't turn down the invite). 

If the ISP-BT marriage does happen, expect it to start soon - maybe even this year. I wouldn't be surprised if at least one major ISP dips its toe into the BT waters over the next 10 months, with the other big players following suit. That would make 2008 the year that changed everything in BT.

But whether 2008 is the year or 2009, expect everything to change in BT, and ISPs will be at the center of that revolution.

David Honig is vice president of media at Didit. (

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