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Google Raises the Behavioral Bar

  |  March 13, 2009   |  Comments

A precedent-setting level of transparency, choice and control to ad targeting.

It's behavioral targeting, and it's just what the FTC ordered. So what if Google is calling it's just-introduced, still-in-beta display product "interest-based advertising"? Both the product and the timing of its introduction couldn't be better.

The FTC has been rattling its sabers at behavioral advertising and privacy practices since 2007 and is only getting more vocal on the topic. If the industry doesn't regulate itself, Congress will step in and do it for us. And the feds are very, very clear about what they want to see regulated.

It appears interest-based advertising is just what the commissioner ordered. And this against a background of all the major advertising trade associations banding together to tackle the issue, as well as Procter & Gamble's general counsel exhorting the industry to get a move on, already.

A Model of Decorum and Simplicity

In the past, a consumer's only real option insofar as behavioral was concerned (aside from cookie-purging) was to opt out via the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) -- an arcane practice, practically a dark art known only to trade associations and trade journalists but not your average Joe Web user. Certainly it's not the most conspicuous as far as consumer preferences and privacy are concerned.

Now that Google has entered the behavioral space, it's turning on the lights. And it's doing so in a manner that mirrors the disclosure the company pioneered in conspicuously labeling search ads when that channel was in its infancy -- remember 2002? The scenario wasn't so different, other than at the time it was search engines at the other end of the FTC's wagging finger.

What's impressive isn't that Google has built its own behavioral targeting model, but that it's backed up with a crystal-clear Ads Preferences. With one click, users see stunningly simple information about why they're seeing the ads they're seeing. At the same time, they're offered a palette of tools to do something about it.

And that something isn't limited solely to opting out entirely, although opt-out is an option. Individual users will be able to see which buckets Google has lumped them into: traveler, expectant mom, car buyer, and so on. And once they see those options, they can opt in and out of each individually at will.

This is an almost unprecedented level of choice and control in advertising, one that will raise the bar a lot higher for other behavioral advertising players. Google's Ads Preferences not only empowers users with a markedly higher measure of control, it bears another, more implicit message: conveying the importance and value of advertising while demonstrating the user's value.

It's significant that interest-based advertising was not only introduced on Google's ad blog but also in a post by deputy general counsel Nicole Wong. In it, she stresses the many calls for consumer protection and privacy recently issued by the FTC and a host of other organizations: NAI; the Center for Democracy and Technology; and the Internet Advertising Bureau. Pointedly, she writes, "By listening to them and by relying on the creativity of our engineers, we built a product that's not only consistent with industry groups' privacy principles but also goes beyond their requirements."

In rolling out transparent, user-friendly, simple-to-use tools that allow users to manage their privacy and choices regarding advertising messages they see and the data collected on their surfing habits, Google is sending a powerful message to everyone involved in the online advertising ecosystem.

Sorry to break it to you, behavioral advertising veterans. But once again, Google is the one to beat.

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Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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