Google AdSense & "Interest-Based Advertising"

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Internet tracking has gone from a Doubleclick to no clicks.

The Long Version: I got an e-mail from Google last night, and it's worth quoting here.

We're writing to let you know about the upcoming launch of interest-based advertising, which will require you to review and make any necessary changes to your site's privacy policies. ... Interest-based advertising will allow advertisers to show ads based on a user's previous interactions with them, such as visits to advertiser website and also to reach users based on their interests (e.g. "sports enthusiast"). To develop interest categories, we will recognize the types of web pages users visit throughout the Google content network.

What this means for you, gentle reader, is that every time you click an AdSense advertising link, Google will use its massive powers to build a profile of what you like. Should you choose to not click any links, Google will still use its massive powers to build a profile of what sort of websites you visit. I have disabled this in the AdSense settings for these pages, so it will not track your activity here, but as an internet user you should assume that this opt-out hasn't been done by any of the sites that you visit. There apparently is an opt-out choice for individuals, but I can't endorse its effectiveness - this is still Doubleclick that we're dealing with. You can visit that page here: google.com/privacy_ads.html

Incidentally, there's no direct benefit to the web sites hosting the ads - they don't get paid more or anything like that. There's a vague promise that the ads will be more tempting to visitors, and lead to more click-through, but that's all the carrot they can offer.

It's also worth mentioning that as far as a money-making device for website hosts and authors like myself, it's pretty much a bust. I started showing ads here in September 2008, and since then I have "earned" a mighty $17.71 with 61 clicks on 13,500 page views. Google doesn't issue cheques (checks, I suppose, since it's US dollars) until they break three digits. Assuming some moderate growth, that means I should be seeing some actual money by Christmas 2010. It's better than nothing, and I'd be writing ThewsReviews anyway, but there's really very little incentive for me to continue with AdSense except for how amusing I think it is watching Google try to find relevant ads for the eclectic mix of content on this site.

(As I'm editing this review, the ever-changing ads are for a Toronto IT service, digital camera batteries, a coin counting machine, and a photography school. Apparently Google has seen my photoblog.)

So websites aren't paid more for letting Google track their readers, and 99.995% of visitors (based on my numbers) will be profiled even though they aren't using the 'service'. That sounds like a perfect reason to e-mail web site owners with AdSense ads to ask them to turn this 'feature' off. Tell them it's under the "My Account" tab.

If you can't unjoin them, confuse them?

If I recall correctly, the AdSense terms of service specifically prohibit me from encouraging people to click on ads on pages I control. So remember that I've turned this tracking feature off, meaning that this advice doesn't apply here, and it is only offered as a personal anecdote. When I'm faced with data collection and profiling that I can't avoid, my preference has always been to feed it junk. I'm going to start visiting sites that wouldn't normally appeal to me and clicking on ads for products that don't interest me. Doubleclick dropped its profiling efforts because the data wasn't worth the effort, but with Google's resources and Moore's Law to help out, that might not be the case this time. My hope is that garbage in really does lead to garbage out, but even if it doesn't make any difference in the long run, it might be amusing and lead to some quirky personal results.

ThewsReviews Has No Privacy Policy

Google's e-mail also suggests that I change my privacy policy to reflect their newest endeavor. Apparently I should note the following points:

Google, as a third party vendor, uses cookies to serve ads on your site.
Google's use of the DART cookie enables it to serve ads to your users based on their visit to your sites and other sites on the Internet.
Users may opt out of the use of the DART cookie by visiting the Google ad and content network privacy policy. (http://www.google.com/privacy_ads.html)
(emphasis added. Interestingly they don't call it Doubleclick DART like they do elsewhere in their site.)

Even though I've opted out of this AdSense tracking and profiling for all of ThewsReviews, and don't have a privacy policy for this site, I should also point out that any time you visit a web site with a hit counter (and that's essentially all of them, even if you don't see one) your information is being tracked and aggregated by machines and stored electronically. I've left mine 'open', so you can click on it to see exactly what I know about my visitors. The main stats that interest me are your location (usually identified as city and country), the link or search terms you followed to get here (almost always a google search), and how many pages you looked at (so that I know if what I write is interesting or not), and what the most popular pages are. Tracking my own visits is nothing but pointless astroturfing, so they aren't included, but in the interest of fairness: I usually visit from Rogers.com, am in Toronto, Canada, and get here by a direct link which would show as "unknown" in the stats. There are also some interesting graphs and charts that show hits and page views over time, browser and OS share, and language.

Remember as you browse the internet that any website can collect this information, and probably more. The stats that I see with my free host don't come anywhere close to what I can get from my site that's hosted by godaddy.com, and they're not exactly high-end either. So if people knowing these things is an issue to you, take a look at some of the anonymizing software and services that are out there. Sure, there's the old "if you're innocent, you have nothing to hide" argument, but that's usually used by those with power to get others to surrender theirs, and is more appropriate for a police state than modern datamining and marketing. The new AdSense is showing that's there's value in knowing everything, so make your personal choices accordingly.


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