Why Google and Facebook Want to Know *Everything* About You

Wednesday Mar 7th 2012 by Mike Elgan
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The hulking kings of the Internet have big plans for your data. And that might be good news.

You’ve read the headlines. You’ve heard the panicking pundits. Google, Facebook and many other companies are harvesting as much data about you as they can get. They’re dropping cookies on your PC and “tracking” you as you surf the web.

All these companies are desperate to “violate your privacy” and monitor, track, record, eavesdrop and spy on you, and no amount of personal data is enough. They always want more.

At least that’s what we’re told.

The problem with this view is that it’s based on faulty assumptions and fuzzy logic.

Here’s what’s really going on.

You’re Being Remarketed To

Nearly all the business growth in the marketing racket these days is not marketing, but something called remarketing. It’s also called personalized retargeting, behavioral retargeting or search retargeting.

All this is just marketing jargon for the attempt to influence your future behavior based on your past behavior.

Let me give you a simple example.

Let’s say you search Google for a home espresso machine. Google returns an online catalog that sells such high-end coffee stuff, and you click on the link. You find a model you like, so you add it to your cart. But when you get to the buying process, you discover that shipping costs $30. You think that maybe Amazon will ship for free, or that you’ll find a better deal somewhere else. So you click out of the site without making the transaction.

From your perspective, you were window shopping and didn’t make a purchase. From the coffee catalog’s perspective, you were marketed to. Their Search Engine Marketing (SEO) efforts got you to visit the site and engage with products.

You’re done with them. But they’re not done with you. Now it’s time for them to remarket to you.

You notice that as you visit blogs and other sites, you’re suddenly seeing big ads for espresso machines. It feels like that coffee catalog is “following” you or “tracking” you.

In reality, no human being knows which ads you, specifically, are seeing -- nor do they care. A cookie has been dropped on your PC to identify you to ad servers as someone interested in buying an espresso machine, and so ads are attempting to achieve “relevance.”

And they’re probably succeeding. Instead of pitching espresso machines, which you in fact are actively in the market for, they would otherwise be offering you wrinkle cream, even though you’re 26, or cat food, even though you don’t have a cat.

Remarketing generally benefits most users, who simply get more relevant advertising rather than less relevant.

The Coming Age of Remarketing HD

Companies like Google, Facebook, and for that matter, Amazon.com, Apple and many other companies, can do a much better job of marketing to you with more data.

The coffee catalog treated you like a one-dimensional creature -- a wallet in search of a coffee machine.

As a person, you’re pretty blurry to them.

But with a lot more data, intelligently processed with tomorrow’s advanced algorithms, you’ll be visible to advertising servers in blazing HD. They’ll know more about what you want than you will.

When you searched Google for an espresso machine, for example, Google can combine that information with your zip code, gender, education level and other information as entered on your Google+ profile -- along with hundreds of other signals from search, Google+, YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Play, Google Calendar and more -- to know everything about you.

They’ll know that what people like you really want is a new German fully-automated gadget you’ve never heard of that grinds the beans, foams the milk and delivers your latte. And they’ll offer it to you.

The thing you need to know is that both these capabilities -- the ability to gain details about you and the ability to crunch that data to serve up relevant data -- are all improving constantly, just like the performance of microprocessors or the number of megapixels in camera phones.

And a third capability is getting better as well -- the ability for algorithms to learn from your behavior. On the rare instance that you actually click through an ad, the ad servers will pay very close attention to what kind of ad that was so it can give you more of the same.

Project these growing capabilities into the future and it’s not hard to imagine a world where advertising is more compelling, addictive, distracting and even enjoyable than gaming, social networking or anything else you do online while you’re supposed to be working.

For example, if you look closely at Pinterest, the social network that’s growing like a weed, you’ll notice that it’s mostly fluff -- it’s a lot of products and services and Internet memes shuffled and displayed according to social signals and user choices.

Nobody’s discussing philosophy on Pinterest or debating the Russian election. They’re looking at shoes and saying: “Ooooh, I want those!” It’s a marketer’s dream.

The future of advertising will feel a lot like Pinterest -- fun, addictive and engaging.

As users click around online, Google will know not only about the products and services you know you like, but also the ones you don’t yet know you will like. Their algorithms will profile you. And they’ll dangle all kinds of eye candy in front of you based on a deep understanding of who you are and what you want.

And by “understanding,” I don’t mean actual human understanding, but automated algorithm output that achieves the objective of getting you to click and buy.

Intelligent agents like Apple’s Siri and Google’s upcoming Assistant will take the initiative: “Excuse me, but you might want to check out this espresso machine that just went on sale for half price, and which matches your kitchen decor.”

Everyone’s suspicious of the motives of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple in harvesting your personal data and online behavior.

But that’s the wrong thing to worry about. Their shared motive is to give you exactly what you want in the form of advertising as an alternative to giving you ads you don’t want.

We shouldn’t worry about the industry’s plans. We should worry about what happens when things don’t go according to plan.

The risk with deep personal data gathering is when that data is used for purposes other than marketing and advertising.

For example, it’s hypothetically possible for some unscrupulous data harvester to sell your personal information to your insurance company, which could theoretically raise your rates or drop your coverage because it learns from your online behavior that you have a medical condition.

It’s not inconceivable that law enforcement, domestic spy agencies, foreign spy agencies others might somehow use aggregated data for their purposes, rather than yours.

And, of course, all that rich data would be very useful to identity thieves.

These hypotheticals are scary. But you’ll note that they’re not directly related to the issues that everybody seems to be panicking about.

To recap, major companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are constantly getting better at:

1. Collecting personal and behavioral data about you.

2. Using algorithms to “profile” you and figure out what you want.

3. Learning from your interaction with marketing content to figure out how to push your buttons and get you to buy.

You’ll note that items 2 and 3 actually provide a benefit to you: relevant, rather than irrelevant advertising.

And item 1 is only a threat if security is breached and data leaked.

The bigger threat is when spammers, gangsters, criminals, ID thieves, nefarious hacker types and others utilize similar techniques to do us harm.

So let’s be clear that we shouldn’t fear privacy invasion, but regular invasion. It’s a security threat, not a privacy threat.

I think we should welcome the end of spam and irrelevant advertising. And I think the benefits of automated, all-knowing agents that help us navigate through a complex world outweigh the costs.

We shouldn’t panic about the future of remarketing. But by all means, let’s demand of all Internet companies user control, transparency and -- above all -- security.

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