April 30th, 2009

Personalization on the Web: Ads and Content

This is a story about how much the Internet knows about you.

Tuesday, on GMail, I saw a sponsor message for "Burning Man Boots." Clearly, GMail has identified conversations in which I discuss Burning Man with my friends. I clicked on the link because I wanted to see what kind of trashy crap someone wanted to sell to the Burners, who sure do spend a lot of money to attend an anti-commercial event.

It took me to ShoeBuy.com, which wasn't selling fuzzy pink tranny platforms but more sedate boots like cowboy boots, hiking boots, and even a nice pair of ankle-high black Rockport dress boots.

Hmm, I kind of like Rockports. My grandfather wears ankle-high black boots. I clicked on those puppies to find out more. Turns out, they only sold them in one size (and it wasn't 13AA), so I closed it.

The next day, I visit NYTimes.com. I get a ShoeBuy.com ad.

That company, I think, sounds familiar.

Then I notice that the shoe featured in the ad is the black Rockport boot I'd looked at the day before. The text on the ad says, "Shop our selection of men's Rockport shoes."

(I got the same ad, with the same boot, today on both NYTimes.com and Slate.com. Not very subtle.)

Also on the NYTimes.com, on the sidebar I get a text box with the heading "News for Education Professionals" with a list of links. There's also a link that says "What's This?" and "Powered by LinkedIn." It turns out, they can serve up a list of personalized articles based on my current employment as listed on my LinkedIn profile.

As a former Internet advertising professional, I think this is awesome. We have gobs and gobs of data, and we're finally using it to target ads--and even content--properly. (Never mind that ShoeBuy.com keeps showing me a shoe that I know they don't have in my size.)

As a human being who draws the shades at night, I also find it slightly disturbing. (You can opt-out of the NYTimes/LinkedIn personalized content.)

As a ponderer of idle questions, I wonder what it means that we, as a community, will see fewer and fewer of the same ads and articles, and more personalized content. People pay for clipping services (or at least used to), to see specific content tailored to their interests, so I suppose all such free services are really a boon to us all.

(In case you are wondering how the NYTimes.com knows what kind of shoes I look at on ShoeBuy.com, or what kind of job I have listed on LinkedIn.com, they answer is: they don't. The case of LinkedIn.com is easiest to explain: a small part of the code on NYTimes.com tells my browser to call a script on LinkedIn.com. If LinkedIn knows who I am (because I have a LinkedIn browser cookie), it returns a list of NYTimes.com articles tailored to my industry. The case of ShoeBuy.com is a little more interesting, as I doubt that people that have not visited ShoeBuy.com are seeing many ShoeBuy.com ads. This is most likely due to a 3rd-party server: on my visit to ShoeBuy.com, they tell my browser to request a file from, say, CleverAdTargeting.com. I end up getting a cookie from their site. On NYTimes.com, my browser is directed to pick up an ad from CleverAdTargeting.com. My browser sends them the cookie, and they say, "Hey, we know this guy. He wears shoes. Let's send him a shoe ad." Voila.)

The moral of this story:
You can't delete your cookies and shop for shoes
You can't always read what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, they feed what you read
I don't know. Being clever is harder than it looks. Maybe Dave and HAL are having an argument again?