Google Finally Embraces Behavioral Targeting

Google has begun testing a behavioral targeting system on YouTube and partner sites in its AdSense network. With the move, the company will begin to maintain interest-based profiles based on the Web activity of millions of Web browsers who can then be delivered ads based on those surfing habits.

While many have expected Google would one day embrace behavioral ads, the move is still stunning in light of the company’s past disavowal of the practice. It’s also an important validation for the method, which has already converted most of the Web’s top ad sellers, including Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft.

“There are some situations…where a keyword or the content of a Web page simply doesn’t give us enough information to serve highly relevant ads,” wrote Susan Wojcicki, VP, Product Management, in a post to the Official Google Blog. “We think we can make online advertising even more relevant and useful by using additional information about the Web sites people visit.”

A Google spokesperson said the placement of behaviorally-targeted ads will at first be handled manually, in cooperation with a few dozen advertisers. By year’s end, the company hopes the placements will be automated in the standard AdWords interface.

“Our advertisers and publisher partners have been asking us for a long time to offer interest-based advertising,” added Wojcicki.

That phrase, “interest-based advertising,” is intended to convey Google’s belief that ads delivered with a person’s surfing habits in mind are bound to provide a better experience. Further ad customization is available to those who want it. For instance, users can use an “ad preferences manager” to define the interest categories they wish to be associated with for marketing purposes. This interface allows them to add or remove categories, and they can also remove Google’s advertising cookie altogether. The company has created a browser plug-in that it says will preserve these preferences even after an individual has deleted his or her cookies, addressing a common criticism of behavioral opt-out mechanisms.

Significantly, Google is not offering behavioral targeting of users based on their search activity. However two years ago it began delivering ads based on its users’ immediately prior searches. This practice, which resembles behavioral targeting without the use of stored user profiles, can better capture the context of a search and the searcher’s intent, Google argues. Industry watchers said at the time that Google had opened the door to behavioral targeting by introducing changes to its privacy policy that don’t rule out the practice.

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