Well, it looks like the internet has collectively flipped its lid yet again regarding a Google privacy violation. The scandal of the week is the allegation by the Wall Street Journal that Google bypassed privacy settings in iPhone Safari browsers in order to serve more targeted AdWords ads. Now I’m a guy who both makes his living using the AdWords platform and greatly values his privacy. But I’m sick and tired of hearing about how Google is abusing people’s “personal information” by serving more relevant ads.
First off, let’s get one thing straight. There is a big difference between “personal information” and the kind of data Google and other online advertisers gather. Your personal information is your name, address, phone number, birthday, email, and other bits of information that someone could use to impersonate you or spam you with unwanted messages. This data is sacred and no advertiser has the right to collect or use them without your permission. However, things like browsing data, time on site, and click-throughs are not sacred. It would be impossible to identify a person just through that information, therefore it is not private. This data should be fair game for advertisers because this helps us deliver a better experience to users and consumers by allowing us to create more targeted ads. More targeted ads mean that you get the information you were looking for, and advertisers get to waste less money throwing out ads to people who won’t care about them. It’s a win-win situation.
But of course, there are people who are still ignorant about how online advertising works that want to complain about Google using this browsing data without the user’s permission. As a rebuttal, let me give you a situation. Let’s say a shopper is browsing in a mall and is looking at shoes in a display. Everyone who walks by that person will know that they are interested in shopping for shoes. It’s public information. But as soon as we transfer that situation online and that customer is browsing Zappos.com and getting retargeted ads for other shoe websites, it becomes a violation of privacy. This is nonsense. Searching for something online is just as public as walking around in a mall. Just because you’re sitting at home instead of walking around in public doesn’t make it a private situation. The internet is a digital version of the public space, so your browsing information is fair game. I think that being signed in to a Google account makes it a slightly different situation, since you’re tying an email address and other personal information to the browsing data. But Google has already solved this problem by enabling SSL security for signed-in searchers (much to the chagrin of SEO practitioners, I might add).
Online marketing and e-commerce are bringing up some interesting ethical questions, but this one seems pretty clear to me. As advertisers, we need to hold true personal information sacred. If we are entrusted with contact information or data that we can personally identify someone with, we must behave ethically and cautiously to protect it. But consumers need to meet us halfway and stop pretending that anonymous browsing data has anything to do with privacy. Search technology is making advertising better and more efficient. If you don’t like it, we can always go back to blasting you with irrelevant banner ads.