December 4, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Target me with your ads, please

Target me with your ads, please
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I've made myself a target.

For online advertisements, that is. I know it's happening to me already, every day as I surf the Web. But because I tend to ignore the ads, I hadn't taken much note of any blatant targeting based on who I am, what I'm interested in, or my actions on the Web.

(I have noticed some pretty crazy ads in my Gmail account that made me laugh. But those are based on the context of content of the e-mail, like search ads are, and thus are not behaviorally targeted.)

The issue is on people's minds lately as technologies enable more and more monitoring of our actions on the Web and advertising gets increasingly sophisticated. Behavioral targeting was the subject of a town hall last month sponsored by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is looking into Google's proposed acquisition of online ad serving and ad exchange provider DoubleClick, which poses privacy concerns for some and anticompetition issues for others.

The proposed Google-DoubleClick merger is just one in a recent consolidation wave that includes Microsoft's purchase of ad serving firm Aquantive and ad exchange AdECN, as well as AOL buying behavioral targeting firm Tacoda and Yahoo buying online ad auction network RightMedia and BlueLithium, an online advertising network. Behavioral marketing is also spreading to social networks, including the popular Facebook, which recently announced a new ad system that has members up in arms.

During a recent briefing with online ad network Specific Media, I asked (well, really I begged) to be targeted firsthand in a live demonstration. Specific Media Chief Executive Tim Vanderhook indulged me, but I have to report that I was underwhelmed with the results. Not because the advertising wasn't targeted, but because it just didn't offend or annoy me enough. But maybe my expectations were too high.

Vanderhook showed me my profile, actually the profile of my computer, which has cookies dropped from the Web sites of Specific Media partners. It was a list of categories and subcategories based on my Web surfing habits. It showed that I was interested in things pertaining to technology and specifically the Internet and digital cameras, news and media, advertising, arts in general, cultural development, philosophy and, this is odd, heavy construction. I must have hit on some housing or building site to trigger that one.

To show how the profiling gets updated, I visited one of the 1.5 million Web sites in Specific Media's data network, a site on personal finance, and clicked on an article about debt reduction. When I went back to look at my demographic profile, a new business category had been added: "macro economics:credit and debt."

Fitting the profile?
Specific Media also predicts my age, gender, race, and income based on the Web sites I visit. So, at work, I'm probably a middle-age white man who reads a lot of tech news sites. At home, I expect I'm a young to middle-age white woman who visits a lot of entertainment and animal- and environment-related sites. But either way, they don't know exactly who I am, where I live, or how to reach me.

I then tested how the system targets me with ads based on what sites I visit. I went to a portal for a broadband Internet service provider that Vanderhook asked me not to identify. At the top of the page it served me an ad for a debt reduction company and at the bottom an ad for a credit card company.

What if I were visiting Web sites related to something that could be highly personal or embarrassing if other people knew it was targeted at me, like sexual dysfunction, pregnancy, or even bad breath?

Specific Media doesn't serve ads for sensitive categories including certain health conditions, like AIDS or sexual dysfunction, but ads targeted at pregnant women aren't necessarily excluded, Vanderhook said. And halitosis? Apparently, there isn't much brand advertiser interest in that category yet.

In addition to online ad networks, search sites like Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft are amassing a heavy arsenal of targeted advertising capabilities. Yahoo has been doing behavioral targeting for more than six years, "longer than anybody," said Richard Frankel, senior director of product marketing at Yahoo.

Yahoo not only has a portal that attracts millions of visitors every day, but the company also knows what searches are conducted and knows who you are based on your Yahoo account registration for things like Yahoo Mail.

Yahoo's behavioral targeting is based on visits to pages on the Yahoo network and partner sites like eBay, Comcast, and Forbes.com, what searches on Yahoo you have conducted, and which ads you clicked on and viewed. If you are logged in to your Yahoo account, the site can target you based on your age and gender, but that targeting system is separate from the behavioral targeting system, Frankel said.

I thought I'd give Yahoo's behavioral ad targeting system a whirl. I conducted searches for "Toyota RAV 4," "autos," and "Jetta" and clicked on some results. Then I went into my Yahoo Mail and, sure enough, there was an ad for Buick. The system obviously wasn't picking up that I was interested in foreign makes.

"We can't read your mind," Frankel said in response. "I don't know that you would never consider a domestic car. (Domestic car makers) want to compete for that business too."

CONTINUED: Privacy debate continues…
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7 comments

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Maybe it's me...
But, I never look at any ads and have never clicked on one intentionally...except once, when that high-school-reunion site promised to be able to hook me up with all my old pals. Didn't work.

To me, it's unsettling that there are a lot of folks (apparently) who will click on site ads regularly.
Posted by Kings X Rocks! (89 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Distraction
I often end up glazing over the ads, maybe only briefly seeing them. But they're never relevant, usually annoying.

Recognizing that advertising isn't going away, I would be happy to fill out a questionnaire to tailor the ads to be more relevant to me.

It would be a (win)-(win)-(less-of-a-loss) situation. (Advertisers - Advertising Network - me)

Tie it to the surfing habit monitoring you're already doing and you have a backup in case I lie and say I'm not in the market for a new car and then keep going to car sites.

Just seems like there's a business model in being transparent and offering a solution. Because isn't that what marketing is? Offering solutions to problems we didn't realize we had?
Posted by TV James (680 comments )
Reply Link Flag
In parts advertising is Brilliant!
Be responsible or get punished, that should be in every company's business theme and Vision Statement.
These very same principles should be acknowledged by the Internet user and security should come first at all times.

Advertising is and has always been effective and rather you click on the advertisement or not is not the most important part, but more so the BRANDING. Branding is everything in business and the more you expose your brand the easier it is to be recognized.
Poor advertising is not good, but will only be remembered for a few days, where as the brand could be remembered for a lifetime.

Advertising for the most part works for me when it is new and then I might click on it, but it better be good and persuasive or I will pass it by. If it is informative I'm not interested, where as if it tells me that I can't or should live without it I might pay more attention.

So for advertising in general! TURN IT ON and let me be the judge.

Merry Christmas everyone.
FeelGood365.com
Posted by ntrsource (43 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I agree
I never click on ads either, at least not on purpose. One time I almost did- The marketer tricked me with clever reverse psychology- the ad read: "whatever you do, do not click on this ad!" or something like that. Made me laugh and I really almost clicked on it...I guess I'm glad that some people out there click on them, though!
Posted by *gil (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Advertisers don't get it
There are ads everywhere. So people tuned them out. So advertisers get more desperate.

The only ads I pay attention to are the simple text ads by Google. Graphic, bandwidth-stealing ads I ignore and block altogether.

Advertisers have it wrong. STOP ad targeting, STOP ads that distract. START using simple ads like Google.
Posted by i_am_still_wade (250 comments )
Reply Link Flag
2 words - Adblock Plus
Single best utility since Notepad... Adblock Plus

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://adblockplus.org/en/" target="_newWindow">http://adblockplus.org/en/</a>

I haven't seen an ad in Firefox since I installed this.

Ads are annoying and they slow down the loading of a web page.
Posted by AshDK (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I hate all the ads. Most of the ones I've seen are for anti-aging and wrinkle advertisements. I am not even a senior citizen! It is really some kind of materialistic pigeonholing and I object to it.
Posted by starlingcity (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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