Targeting Ads Based On Search Behavior & Privacy Issues Post-AOL

Back in 2005, I wrote about AlmondNet moving forward with showing ads to surfers across the web based on their search profiles at major search engines. The move raised big search privacy issues. Since then, AlmondNet's kept going -- along with others such as Yahoo, in mining search behavior to deliver ads beyond search results pages. Advertisers Trace Paths Users Leave on Internet from the New York Times today takes a look how Yahoo, MSN and AOL are all trying to push into the post-search ad delivery space.

I've always felt these programs would eventually raise greater concerns over search privacy, since it would make it even more readily apparent to people that they were having search profiles assembled for them. If you go back to the AOL search privacy poster child of Thelma Arnold, tracked down through her search requests, her comment was one I'm sure many searchers would have:

I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.

Until the AOL search records release, many people still have had no idea they were being profiled. But I've felt post-search ads would help raise that concern. Why were you continuing to see ads based on things you recently searched for? Perhaps that would help raise awareness of search profiles.

The AOL release has changed all that. To me, post-search ads -- while promising -- are a non-starter until the search privacy issues are resolved. We've been told that data would be protected, yet it got out in one way via AOL. Though the intent was innocent, it might slip out in the future in other ways. Even Google CEO Eric Schmidt, when I asked him about search privacy and data destruction last week, said you could "never say never" about things not going wrong.

For these types of programs to move forward, I think consumers will need more faith and control over how long search data is kept for them, plus the ability to opt-out or delete histories with a push of a button, perhaps the type of privacy/data control panel John Battelle has wished for. And as I've written, that has to include ISPs, many of which merrily sell search data that they monitor to third party companies.

I'm working on a longer look back at the fallout from the AOL release and ways forward. But a quick shout-out to Daniel Brandt of Google Watch is in order. Seth Finkelstein just gave him one, and I'll add to it. I've felt Brandt's often twisted things or focused on stuff that didn't matter much (Google's 30 year cookie that most people won't really have last for more than a year or two, if that). But his long-standing call for regular data destruction -- something other privacy advocates have also pushed for -- seems the most secure solution going forward.