What Google Learned From the Beacon Brouhaha

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2007-12-19 Print this article Print

 A lot was made of Facebook's Beacon snafu, largely because, well, the media and the blogosphere wouldn't give it a rest. I stand guilty as charged on that score, but I don't think anyone following the online ad space will disagree that, along with mobile, social networking ads (social ads really) are a major green field.

Hindsight being 20-20 and all, I asked a top Google AdSense guy what he thought of Beacon and how Google would do such a system differently. The conversation, with AdSense Group Product Manager Brian Axe, took place at Google's headquarters last Wednesday.

First, Axe saw full well what Beacon could do. He told me another director that works on AdSense bought a pair of shoes only to have information about her purchase piped to her feed. "It was pretty disconcerting."

I then rambled on about how social ads are a pain. With regular ads, you just place 'em according to who you want to see them, and let them rip. Social ads deal with a whole new, well, social construct where assumptions about what people want to share can get you into a bucket of Beacon-like trouble. This is what Axe said in response:

"Where they really got into trouble was watching users' behavior outside of the environment they control. It makes a lot of sense if you publish the article (a story about an online activity) under that environment that's one thing, but if it automatically publishes then that's another thing because they didn't have explicit opt-in controls. When we've looked at these types of things, it's always come down to: let's think of the users first. The Google ad system would have to let users choose to publish on a point-by-point basis, or to opt-in to publish the full stream."

We can rant and rave all we want about privacy issues, ethics and angry end users, but it's clear Axe's perspective is that Beacon was clearly a bad business move. It's interesting that the two options Axe said Google would enable for such a system—opt-in on a case by case level or by total stream—are what privacy advocates said Facebook should have provided with Beacon from the get-go. Ah, the beauty of hindsight.

——Axe's comment suggests Google would get social ads right from the start. I wonder... Google may be the crowned king of online ads and all, but Social Ads can be a different animal, and like I said, you can't assume how people are going to think. 

Axe then explained that because Google tracks what users do online in aggregate, it takes the creepiness out of ad targeting because users aren't singled out.

That doesn't mean Google isn't considering it: "You could be in a profile of a bucket with many other people but that's still following individuals and we haven't crossed that bridge. What we do is say 'here's a site, here's what it's about, lets send the ads off to that site," Axe said. "Social networking is a little different because of the public profiles within the site that other people can view about their interests."

I asked Axe straight out if we would see Google social ads or some such offering, and whether or not they would appear on OpenSocial.

Axe said: "Social ads are the container side of it, and you can imagine how Google gadget ads can be promoted across different sites as interactive applications on MySpace, Facebook, etc."

That's an answer that begs clarity. My usual inclination is to believe that if a rival does something you've got to answer it somehow. When Facebook announced Beacon, I thought: what new scheme will Google implement for OpenSocial to rival Beacon?

After processing Axe's answer I think it's unlikely we'll see a special, separate articulation for social ads, a la Beacon. Google believes the gadget ads will fly just fine for its purposes. Let's consider this: millions of people are going on Facebook and toying with applications on the site. It stands to reason that if you place gadget ads, which are designed to be interactive, alongside these Facebook apps, they would mesh well with the other things folks are doing on Facebook. Throw an electronic sheep at a friend, click on a link to that new Honda. Both apps invite interactivity. 

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