Facebook Threat Should Set Google's Ad Ideas in Motion

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-08-11 Print this article Print

Where have all of the privacy watchdogs and consumer advocates gone?

If tradition were holding steady they would be knocking on doors on Capitol Hill, demanding Congressional hearings in light of the advertising plans Google employees began bandying about two years ago, according to this fun, well-done expose on the machinations of the search giant's product managers.

WSJ has a pay-wall, so allow me to quote from the report:

Google is pushing into uncharted privacy territory for the company. Until recently, it refrained from aggressively cashing in on its own data about Internet users, fearing a backlash. But the rapid emergence of scrappy rivals who track people's online activities and sell that data, along with Facebook Inc.'s growth, is forcing a shift.

That's sums up Google's precarious position as well as anyone can put it. The company is wary of aggressively targeting users with ads based on the data they collect on them from its 20-plus various Web services.

At the same time, it realizes that if it doesn't act soon, the Facebooks, Twitters and Foursquares of the world will capitalize and catch the next big ad wave, which form at the intersection of being highly social, mobile and based on users' location.

That's the context. The interesting nuggets come from a "vision statement" -- not to be confused with the Jerry Maguire "Fewer clients. Less money" mission statement--compiled in late 2008 by Aitan Weinberg, a senior product manager for the company's interest-based advertising.

Google, which has tread carefully in advertising because founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have shunned dinging user privacy to make money, has conceived ways that would aggressively target consumers with ads.

For example, the company in March 2009 launched "interest-based advertising," a type of behavioral targeting that delivers ads to users based on their previous searches and page views.

That targeted advertising raised the hackles of some privacy advocates. But Weinberg also suggested several other measures, including "surround search" targeted ads that surface for users within 15 to 60 minutes of a search. Timeliness equals relevance.

The Journal added:

The document also says Google could start selling ads across the Web based on the things it knew about people from their Gmail accounts, and also from their use of Google's Checkout service, a PayPal rival. All of that would be a significant change. Currently, although Google places contextual ads within a user's Gmail account, it doesn't follow that person to other websites with those ads.

Meanwhile, Google is said to be building a social network as a way to counter the famous "Like" button Facebook is using to collect data on peoples' interests.

The "Like" button, installed on thousands of Web sites, is interest-based advertising on steroids, which depends on the viral nature of the Web for propagation.

Google won't talk about this document, but a source familiar with the company's plans assured me this document was one product manager's "brainstorming document about what might be possible."

Apparently, Google did a lot of thinking about ad experimentation after it tucked in display ad giant DoubleClick. This document allegedly never made it to senior executives, such as Brin, Page or Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

That's too bad. I think that unless Google wants to be the next Microsoft on the Web, it had better start moving more aggressively into using peoples' data to hone its ad approach.

I would gladly accept more targeted ads to preserve my Google experience. People with my view--and there are many of us--scare the living hell out of privacy advocates.

[[ED NOTE: I have no notion of what the first part of this sentence means or says, so I don't want to mess with it. Please check. TM ]]I have a ton of data in Google It's Web services, and apps have become roughly as important to my Web experience as electricity and running water are to my physical lifestyle.

If Google went kaput, I'd lose a lot of useful data, and who the hell wants to migrate that data to another service anyway? It's like moving from one house to another. Sure, I might be happy with the result, but no one likes the process.

So Google had better do the little things--by that I mean optimize ad delivery--to stay in business for me as a consumer. Of course, I feel the same way about Facebook, so in my perfect world, the two would co-exist without killing each other off.

It's working now, but who knows what will happen in the future if neither company continues to innovate and build new stuff. Metaphor overkill alert: I'm a card-carrying, flag-waving fan of the "competition is great" movement.

By the way, in case you didn't click on the Jerry Maguire link above, here's the clip in all its glory:

Google needs to exhibit a little more "Show me the Money" and "Greed is Good" chutzpah and less play nicey-nice or there won't be any Google in five years.

And I'm too lazy to move my data elsewhere.

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