Everyone loves things to be convenient, personalized and, if possible, both. Does this mean we’re lazy, spoiled and self-absorbed? Possibly. But like it or not, it’s become the norm to have services catered specifically to our needs. Suggestions for friends on Facebook, books from Amazon, music choices from Pandora and search terms on Google are all ways in which our needs get magically preempted by the faceless, amorphous Internet.
Here’s a newsflash: it’s not magic. The sites you visit, what you buy, what you search for, who your friends are, how old you are — are all tracked by following what you do on various web sites. It may sound somewhat creepy and futuristic, but it’s not. We just don’t think about it every day.
So I was pretty surprised when the results of a recent survey conducted in part by Penn professors Amy Bleakley, Michael Hennessy and Joseph Turow concluded that a majority of Americans object to tailored advertising, discounts and news. Even a majority (55 percent) of those aged 18 to 24 — ostensibly less concerned about privacy than older generations — oppose online-tailored advertising, albeit by a smaller margin than older survey respondents.
Turow noted an important distinction between people’s feelings on tailored content versus opinion on the ways in which companies track consumers’ preferences.
“For the first questions [asking whether or not people want web sites to show tailored ads, discounts and news], the older you were, the more likely you were to be opposed,” he said. “Questions about [whether or not people are OK with tracking based on the web site they’re visiting, other web sites they’ve visited, or what you do offline] showed no statistically significant difference between age groups.”
This survey was more neutral than most done in years past. It was academic, whereas earlier surveys were corporate, and the researchers used the telephone to get an accurate representative sample.
Still, biases, mostly through misunderstandings, likely still exist. The question that asks whether people are OK with tailored content based on following their offline purchase history makes it sound like online companies send representatives to personally hound consumers as they run their errands. In reality, the methods are much less intrusive.
The survey also doesn’t mention that much online content, including news, e-mail services and search engines, is free because of advertising — and the need for tailored advertising is growing.
Internet advertising revenue is down for the first half of 2009 by 5.3 percent, making this the second consecutive quarter online marketing has fallen since 2002. Yet online search-advertising revenue has actually risen, and online interactive advertising (which by its nature must track users’ online behavior) is one of the least affected advertising sectors. Coincidence? I think not. Tailoring ads to people’s interests makes for extremely profitable marketing.
Corporations have that figured out — but consumers still seem to be in the dark about what companies can and cannot do with the information web sites collect, and that’s an important issue the survey brings to light. People are opposed to the idea that companies can use what they consider private information, like their interests, to manipulate them into buying stuff. Fair enough. But no matter how much they might oppose the idea theoretically, most people would still rather use Google to answer their questions than any offline resource.
There’s a definite need for greater consumer awareness, and government regulation is a solid way to improve privacy protection. U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) recently announced his plan to introduce better privacy legislation in online advertising. Already, the advertising industry has proposed better self-regulation, and major networks like Google and Yahoo belong to the Network Advertising Initiative, which allows users to opt out of target advertising from member companies.
In the end, there’s no need to think that online tracking is a bad thing. It’s important to acknowledge it, understand what information you’re giving out, and decide whether or not you’re comfortable with that. But don’t forget, that same tracking is why the Internet can be so gosh-darn convenient for you.
Katherine Rea is a College junior from Saratoga, Calif. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgComments powered by Disqus
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