The Coming Storm: Search and Consumer Privacy

First published November 9, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Earlier this week, in OnlineSpin, Seana Mulcahy wrote about two new complaints filed by consumer groups with the Federal Trade Commission. The shadowy subjects of tracking online behavior, analytics and targeting are outlined in the complaints.

Earlier this year, in an interview, I predicted a showdown between search engines and consumers around privacy issues. I suspect these two complaints could be the harbinger of the coming storm.

The Natural Convergence of Search and Behavioral Targeting

It makes all kinds of sense for the worlds of search and behavioral targeting to overlap, and the conjunction of those two worlds is a very powerful place indeed for the marketer. Behavioral targeting allows you to track and target potential customers based on their click stream. You can identify promising click streams based on sites visited and behavior on those sites. The odds of picking the right person at the right time to receive your message go up substantially.

Now let’s look at search. At some point in the buying cycle, which is mirrored by the click stream, almost all consumers will turn to a search engine to look for more information. This is a rather momentous point. At the earliest occurrence, it often indicates when the consumer switches from awareness to consideration. It’s when they become actively engaged in the act of purchasing, which puts them in a whole new mindset. From that point forward, they could turn back to the search engine at different times to assist them in the purchase. The key is that consumers who are using a search engine are very receptive to information about the product or service, because they’ve requested that information. Push turns to pull.


The Challenge with Search

The problem with search right now is knowing where the consumer is–at which touch pointIs it early in the cycle, near the beginning of the consideration phase, when consumers are compiling candidates for their consideration set? Is it somewhere in the middle, when they’ve assembled their set and are comparing features or looking for reviews? Is it when they’re ready to purchase? It’s almost impossible to tell from the query, because as past comScore studies have shown, there is often not a search funnel. The same query could be used at each point in the cycle.

Given this inability to disambiguate intent from the query, most marketers aim for the sure bet. They go for the purchase, because it’s much easier to track conversions and ROI. Do a search right now on any engine for “digital cameras” and look at the sponsored ads that appear. I guarantee they’ll be aimed at someone ready to purchase. Is this the query you would use if you had done your research and were ready to purchase one specific model? Would you even buy online? Probably not. But it is the query you would use if you were starting to consider your options.

You’re not alone. The marketers on the results page are missing over 80% of potential buyers by focusing on the less than 5% who are ready to buy now. It’s just not a good match-up for the advertiser or the consumer.

Enter BT

Now, if you were able to combine behavioral targeting with that all- important search touch point, you could serve a research-based ad if you knew at what stage in the buying cycle the consumer was, based on his online visits. You could take the guesswork of matching the message to the person. And finally, we could start to pull away from the pure direct response tactics that restrict the effectiveness of search. It’s tremendously powerful.

This is not something in the far-distant future. The mechanisms are already in place for search engines to track your online behavior. Tool bars, mini apps, personal search history. All of these can and do track where you’ve been. Everybody is being tracked to some degree.

But as Seana pointed out in her column, most of us are blissfully unaware of it. That’s because it’s been relatively benign to this point. In return for a handy tool bar that offers increased convenience, the ability to index your desktop and other added functionality, we just click the accept button without really reading what we’re accepting. Up to now, there hasn’t seemed to be any consequences. But in the background, the engines are quietly collecting terabytes of click-stream data. And the time is coming when that data will be put to use.

Privacy Storm Front

At first, it will be subtle and a little unsettling. The search ads we’ll be seeing will be targeted much more precisely. They will seem to speak just to us. It will be like the advertiser is reading our mind. We’ll be thrilled at first, but eventually, we’ll read an article somewhere that will explain the uncanny ability of the advertiser to give us just the right message. It’s because they’ve been watching us, tracking what we do online. And it won’t just be on search, it will be throughout the search engine’s advertising networks.

“Hmmm” you’ll say to yourself, “I’m not sure I’m okay with that.”

More and more consumer groups will launch protests. Politicians will sense opportunity and jump on their soapboxes. There will be a very vocal minority that will rail against this “Big Brotherism.” There will also be a group of advertisers that will continue to step way beyond the acceptable, using targeting to subvert the user experience, rather than enhance it, hijacking the user and taking them to places they never intended. This will add fuel to the fire. And because they’re the most visible target, the search engines will bear the brunt of the attack.

In the end, we’ll realize there’s much more pro than con here. Effective targeting will generally add to our experience, not take away from it. We’ll toy with trying to use a third-party privacy filter, but in the end, most of us won’t be willing to give up the additional functionality in return for maintaining an illusion of anonymity online. Much of the usefulness of Web 2.0 (I know, I hate the term too, but at least it’s commonly understood) will be dependent on capturing personal and click-stream data. We’ll give in, and the storm will gradually fade away on the horizon.

At least, that’s my prediction.

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