Google changed their policy regarding personally identifiable information being used for advertising targeting back in June, as reported on MarketingLand. It got some coverage and the topic has been raised again by a post from ProPublica sounding the alarm bell about what they are essentially calling the end of privacy as we know it. Google, as you can imagine, doesn’t see it that way and points out that these changes are not implemented by default, but must be opted in to.
What Are We Really Talking About Here?
In the past, Google’s policy was, in its essence, that they would not match up personally identifiable information about you as an individual to any kind of detailed profile that would be accessible for advertisers to use for ad targeting. They would only use very general information about you for the targeting. The shift in policy, if a person were to opt-in, lets Google use all kinds of data points gleaned from your specific web habits to allow advertisers to target information to you. The argument for this is obvious – the more advertisers can know about you specifically, the better they should be able to create and target ads designed almost directly for you (or more accurately, people like you). Everyone in the advertising world wants to have better targeting. Everyone.
With ad blockers in serious play, both advertising networks and advertisers are scrambling to figure out how to still get ads in front of eyeballs. One of the main reasons cited for people using ad blockers is the sheer intrusive nature of a lot of today’s advertising. This is particularly egregious on mobile devices, but I digress… But two of the reasons people use ad blockers are security or privacy concerns. Hubspot has a fantastic report on why people use ad blockers – this image if from it:
It’s interesting to me that Google is getting slammed here for what Facebook has been doing for a while (since 2014). If you’ve read my posts over time, then you know that I am certainly not one to defend Google. But, it does seem like there is a little bit of a double standard being used here. Of course, there is a legitimate argument to be made that people are willingly sharing personal information on (read with) Facebook and that their expectation of that service and its interaction with them is different than that of a search engine or email service provider. I would agree with that, largely if you’re talking about what you do on Facebook itself. Both companies end up in the same gray zone when they start taking what they know about you from what you do on their properties and then either marry that data up with other personally identifiable data and/or track your actual web viewing and use it to send you ads.
Isn’t This Just The Evolution Of Retargeting?
I would argue that if it is, it is probably outside the comfort zone of most people. Thinking that Google or Facebook target an ad to you because you search for something like “kids sneakers” or you like an organic local farm’s page seems reasonable to most people, I think. Targeting ads to me because I visited a site about something I did not search on or something that was in an email I sent or received feels invasive to most people.
Retargeting is a bit creepy, but it seems like most people who use the web regularly have kind of come to accept that ads are probably going to follow them around the internet for a while. If I searched for king sized comforters and then I see ads from sites I visited that sell king sized comforters, I don’t find that all that creepy or invasive. That is on the tolerable side of more personalized ads. Using that one to one correlation of data, while annoying to some, at least has a clear cause and effect that people can readily understand.
When companies are permitted to build complex dossiers about individuals and then make that information available to anyone who wants to pay to access it to advertise to said people, that is where many people very much want to get off that train. Most have never really, really thought about the fact that the free services or free benefits they have been receiving all these years from companies have actually come at a price – and that price is the death of anonymity.
For those not aware, offline companies have been compiling dossiers like this for years. Every time you use your credit or debit card at a store and provide your zip code, you’re adding to the data. Every time you use a supermarket loyalty card to get that extra discount, you’re adding to the data. Every time you use an app (and sometimes just by installing an app on your device) you are adding to that data. Use the maps feature? Adding to data about where you go. Use streaming video services? Adding to the data. You get the idea.
How Much Is Too Much – Where Does An Advertiser’s Responsibility Lie?
That answer has not yet fully formed. Europe will have a say in this, as they generally do in matters of online privacy with their more stringent laws and rules regulating privacy. In the end, it is about what it has been about since the very beginning of advertising – trust. Advertisers must temper their glee over access to more detailed personal information with a healthy dose of respect for individuals’ perception of privacy and trust in organizations who have access to this data.
Targeting people effectively on a detailed or personal level is hard. Even the big dogs don’t generally excel at it. Part of it is technology limitations, and part of it is an ongoing game of testing the limits of invasiveness and trust. How far can a company wade into a person’s life without expressly being invited there before that trust is damaged? This is the question digital advertisers will continue to wrestle with as the tracking technology only gets more sophisticated.
In the end, the best advice I think we can give clients when navigating in this space is to ALWAYS remember that there is a human being at the other end of whatever advertising we are pushing out there. Not all industries or situations are equivalent. Be mindful of the level of the personal that is involved not only with the product or service you’re selling, but also the emotional space a person who you might target is in. Once trust is destroyed, it is nearly impossible to get back. Tread lightly and make sure the benefits of using data points definitely outweigh the risks.
What about you – where do you think the line is? Love to hear your thoughts! As always, sound off in the comments or hit me up on Twitter (@NeptuneMoon).