Search and Behavioral Targeting: The Coming Storm

When I was asked to participate on a panel on search and behavioral targeting, my initial thought was “this is going to a short discussion.” Of course, it made complete sense that the two industry sweethearts, search and behavioral targeting, be discussed in one forum. But is there really that much to discuss?

While the Big Three, Yahoo, and more recently, MSN and Google, offer levels of behavioral targeting, the search space has been relatively dark when it comes to the topic. The major reason cited is privacy of consumer information.

Privacy concerns and behavioral targeting have long gone hand-in-hand. A survey conducted in 2004 by Burst Media found only 23 percent of respondents are comfortable with Web sites collecting non-PII (personal identifiable information) to deliver more relevant ads. Women were less open to being tracked than men.

Two years later, privacy concerns continue to be a hot topic, particularly since AOL’s recent mishap involving user-search data. In July, AOL released search data on 658,000 subscribers. It was intended to be used by the academic community as part of an AOL Research site. The plan backfired because personally identifiable information could still be extracted from the data, including subscribers’ names, since most people search their own names. AOL apologized for the error and immediately removed the information; however, this mishap created additional anxiety over Internet privacy issues, which again transferred over to behavioral targeting.

The panel, which was a part of the recent OMMA Expo in New York, included privacy expert Fran Maier, Executive Director of TRUSTe. Ms. Maier’s bottom line is to apply judgment when it comes to behavioral targeting and privacy. As an example, serving ads with the consumers name in it may seem like a good idea, but for many it’s just is plain creepy.

Whether consumers like it or not, behavioral advertising is taking place both in the offline and online realms and, in many cases, consumers encourage it. Every time a consumer uses their a grocery or drugstore loyalty card to qualify for a store discount and/or money back, the store is employing a form of behavioral targeting. If a customer purchases Pepto-Bismol and swipes his or her card, in subsequent purchase receipts it’s very likely he or she will receive a coupon for the same product.

Online, the key is discretion. Advertisers should ask themselves the following questions before implementing a behavioral-targeted campaign:

  • Will the customer be offended or feel violated by this ad?
  • Would the customer be offended if someone else used their computer and saw this ad? This may be the case for anything affiliated with medications or health conditions. Remember, consumers share their computers both at work and at home.
  • Will the consumer’s personal identity be directly be linked to the advertising?
  • How long will the message be live and will it remain relevant to consumers? Serving a baby product ad to someone who bought a baby product two years ago has probably passed its point of relevancy.
  • What is the vendor’s behavioral targeting philosophy and methodology?

Remember, there are no standards in this space, and not all solutions are created equal.

In addition to privacy issues, the other hot item on the agenda was Revenue Science’s release of Search Re-Targeting, which Omar Tawakol, the company’s CMO, discussed. Search Re-Targeting has a lot of potential because it employs the best of search and behavioral targeting, including the following:

  • A motivated, active consumer who has just searched for a specific product. This suggests they’re in-market, and the advertiser’s site is just a click away).
  • Re-messaging to prospects who have searched for a product and visited the advertiser’s site, but not converted. Revenue Science will re-message to these prospects across hundreds of sites in their network.
  • Advertisers only pay on a cost-per-click basis; therefore, there’s no cost implication for impressions.
  • Advertising is text-based and can be quickly altered to accommodate the purchase cycle.

There’s a lot more to search and behavioral targeting than I originally thought. It’s definitely here to stay, and as privacy issues are addressed, publisher opportunities will increase along with consumer acceptance.

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