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

Back in 2005, I
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
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
for regular data destruction — something other privacy advocates have also
pushed for — seems the most secure solution going forward.

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