Google: Inching Toward a More Targeting World

First published August 9, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Google is mastering the art of the low-key announcement. Increasingly it’s been rolling out changes that have the potential to be fundamentally earthshaking with little or no fanfare and, to this point, it seem to be successful in minimizing the pickup.

Take last week’s announcement, for example. Susan Wojcicki, vice president, product management, quietly announced at a press briefing that Google is offering more targeting functionality on its search ads.

Now of course, as Google moves more towards personalization, I’ve been saying that the introduction of ad targeting, specifically behavioral targeting, has been inevitable. In various interviews, Google representatives, including Nick Fox and Marissa Mayer, have consistently said that whatever factors there are for determining relevancy on the organic listings will eventually also be brought into play on the sponsored listings. The goal for Google is to ensure that all the results, organic and sponsored, are highly relevant to the user.

Whispers of World Domination

What’s notable about this development is not so much the additional functionality that’s been introduced, but the way it was introduced. There seems to be a consistent pattern emerging with these announcements, where the language is very carefully determined and the releases are made with minimal fanfare. My belief is that it’s part of an overall strategy to minimize the pushback to the incremental introduction of higher levels of personalization and behavioral targeting.

First of all, let’s look at what exactly increase functionality means. At this point, targeting is only determined by groups of searches done at the same time. So, for example, if you first search for “Paris France” and then search for “Hotel specials.” Google will likely show you sponsored results specific to Paris, even though you didn’t specify Paris in your second query. While this move is logical and smart, and therefore will be accepted gladly by advertisers, it’s fairly benign for the user. You can see there’s nothing particularly sinister about putting together a couple of searches, especially if they’re done one right after the other. Fellow Search Insider Mark Simon talked more about this development in Monday’s column .

Search Spin Doctors

So if this offers a potentially differentiating value for Google and its ads, why did the company introduce it so quietly? The announcement was quietly slipped under the door of a few industry publications like Search Engine Land , and there was the small piece on Reuters . There was virtually no pick-up. Even advertisers weren’t given a heads-up that Google was rolling out this functionality. Google further proved its mastery of the understated release by somehow convincing Reuter reporter Eric Auchard to lead the story with the title “Google wary of behavioral targeting and online ads.” I’m still not sure how the company managed this particular piece of sleight-of-hand.

Also telling is how Google’s back gets up if the words behavioral targeting are even used in context with these new developments. As Mark astutely points out, even though Google is adamantly saying this isn’t behavioral targeting, it is, of course. Google can play around with semantics all it wants, but this is very definitely behavioral targeting. In multiple interviews with me and others, company strategists have gone out of their way to explain how their approach has nothing to do with profiles and segmentation. The language used by Nick Fox and Susan Wojcicki made it very clear that this is all about the context of the task you’re engaged in right now, and nothing is retained or remembered to build a profile. Google is doing everything it can to distance itself from the world of “traditional behavioral targeting” practiced by Tacoda and Revenue Science.

So why the soft sell? And why the pushback on behavioral targeting? I believe it’s all part of a carefully measured strategy that will incrementally roll personalization into everything that Google does, including the serving of ads. On that Mark Simon and I definitely agree (perhaps I’m “in my Gord” on this one). But the move toward personalization is a long slow tango with the user. Actually, it’s more like the Bolero. Everything is heading in that one direction, but the intensity will definitely pick up as we move along.

Moving Toward Win/Win for Both Advertisers and Users

I had a chance to chat with Larry Cornett from Yahoo last week about search user interfaces. We talked about the fact that user acceptance of personalization will be a moving target. As the wins for the user increase as functionality is rolled out, the resistance to surrendering personal information lessens.

I believe Google is acutely aware of this quid pro quo factor and is carefully playing its personalization cards one at a time so as not to spook the user. There’s just too much at risk for Google, especially on the search results page, if users begin to lose trust in the ads.

And, as I’ve mentioned before, that first time you know you’ve been behaviorally targeted, it can be jarring. It takes a while for the user to get used to the efficiency of behavioral targeting. We’re not quick to forget that advertisers have been screaming at us with irrelevant and bogus sales pitches for the better part of a century now. It scares the hell out of us to think that advertisers might have access to personal information that would allow them not only to scream at us, but also know our name, where we live and what Web sites we look at when we have five minutes to goof off.

But I believe the stand that Google currently taking about the use of personal information as a signal for serving ads is a temporary one. It’s a line drawn in the sand, and as user sensitivity around targeting and personalization begins to drop, as it inevitably will, Google will be a little less reluctant to use the words behavioral targeting.

If you look at the big picture and the pieces of the network that Google is beginning to assemble, it’s very difficult to see any other path than personal targeting in the future. But don’t expect any big earthshaking announcements from Google about it in the near future.

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