Google 'Why These Ads' Is Olive Branch to Privacy Watchdogs

Google is offering its "Why These Ads" link to inform users just how it chose specific ads to show its search and Gmail users. The move should assuage some privacy wonks.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Oct. 31 is providing more insight into how ads its search and Gmail users see are relevant, a move to appease privacy hounds who have called for the company to be more forthcoming about how it targets users with ads.

The search company will soon provide a link title "Why these ads" next to ads that appear in search results and Gmail. When users click the link, they'll learn why they've been shown a particular ad, and how it's been tailored for the user. Google typically uses language, geographic location and other signals to target users properly with ads.

"If you're searching for a local restaurant while you're on vacation in Hawaii, you would see ads for restaurants that are nearby, rather than restaurants in your hometown," explained Susan Wojcicki, Google's senior vice president for advertising, in a corporate blog post.

So a user searching for restaurants in New York City may see a batch of ads for Manhattan eateries.

"Or if you're researching flat-panel televisions, and performing a series of similar searches in quick succession, you could see ads based on the query that you just entered, or based on a few recent and related queries within a single browser session," Wojcicki added.

Wojcicki said users may also click a link for the Ads Preferences Manager to make changes that improve the ads they're being served. From this manager, users will also be able to block specific advertisers they're not interested in or turning off ads personalization entirely. This will impinge targeting efforts by Google's ad partners.

Google positions both the Ad Preferences Manager dashboard and the new 'Why these ads" link as solutions for consumers, but it's unlikely many consumers actively use the Ads Preferences Manager. For the same reason, it's also unlikely users will click Why These Ads to learn more about Google's ad-targeting practices.

The vast majority of consumers simply don't care enough or have the time to poke around Google to learn how the search and Gmail Web services work.

What the options are important for is satiating privacy wonks who have spent the last few years or so calling for investigations into Google's search-ad practices. Google is the overwhelming leader in search, and it's secured the position by gleaning a lot of customer data, which makes it a target for suspicious consumer advocates.

Groups such as the Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have all called for Google to be put in check at multiple stops along its path to becoming the search ad behemoth it is.

Google hasn't helped itself by stumbling in protecting user data with its Google Buzz and Street View WiFi privacy gaffes.

Ironically, those mistakes may end up benefitting Google in the long run because they have forced Google to become more transparent. Services such as the Ad Preferences Manager and Why These Ads links can help show regulators that Google is trying to be more user-friendly and open about its business practices. See a list of the company's privacy tools here.

These will help the company at a time when the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and European Commission scrutinize the company for anti-competitive actions.