Are targeted ads an invasion of privacy or an improved browsing experience?


I just recently finished taking IMC – 642 – Web Metrics and SEO. One of the topics that came up in class discussion was the use of targeted advertising. So I got a chuckle when right before Christmas I made an online purchase from the retailer Harry & David and now every time I log in to Facebook or browse certain other websites, like My Yahoo, I see ads for Harry & David.

Harry and David Facebook ad

While their ads are a bit ill-timed (I already made my purchase) and I personally think it would make more sense for Harry & David to try and target their ads to customers who came to their website and didn’t make a purchase, it really doesn’t bother me to see them, I just simply ignore them. However, I found it interesting when this topic was raised in our class discussion that there are a lot people who feel differently. In fact a recent Pew Survey reported that 68% of online consumers are not thrilled with targeted advertising. “While a majority of every demographic group says they are not okay with online targeted advertising, younger internet users and those in the lowest income households are more likely than others to view the practice favorably,” explains Pew researchers and report authors Kristen Purcell, Joanna Brenner and Lee Rainie. “Yet, even among those groups, almost six in ten say they are not okay with targeted ads because they do not like having their online behavior tracked and analyzed” (2012, pg. 23).

Pew Survey Targeted Advertising

It seems that part of the aversion to having browsing behavior tracked and used for personalized advertising is that most users don’t know how to control their internet privacy settings. Pew reported that 62% of internet users do not know how to limit the information that is collected about them from websites. You can view the full report here.

Perhaps my viewpoint is tainted because, as I’ve already written on here, I’m an online marketer at heart, so I appreciate any new technology that will allow me to drive more qualified sales leads to my company’s website. As a consumer I also don’t mind the targeted ads because if I’ve been shopping for, let’s say a telescope (this is a real life recent example) and after going to two or three online retailers to compare models and pricing I start to see ads popping up for other telescopes, it is certainly going to catch my attention and may actually help shorten my search. While I get the argument that some consumers don’t want Google or other companies to decide what content they see, my feeling is if they are making my life easier and saving me time, I’m all for it.  After all I’d rather start seeing ads that are relevant to me than one more ad for a dating site or Viagra!

What do you think? Are targeted ads an invasion of privacy and taking away your freedom as an online consumer, or do they improve the browsing experience?

P.S. Before I forget, I highly recommend IMC – 642 for anyone involved in online marketing! The class is very hand’s on and structured in such a way that whether you enter knowing a little or a lot about analytics and SEO you will be challenged without being overwhelmed, and you’ll ultimately walk away with a much greater knowledge base and skill set.

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2 Responses to “Are targeted ads an invasion of privacy or an improved browsing experience?”

  1. mtietbohl Says:

    Hi, My strongest concern in this area does relate to restrict choice (although incongruent content is disappointing). The issue of search content restriction is well illustrated by the recent changes at YouTube (a Google company).

    I used to enjoy the suggestions more when they related more to specific selections as opposed to channels. Ifelt I received a better exposure to new possibilities that were prompted by past choices. This is also the danger of poorly conceived targeted advertising programs and platform delivery methods.

    • jelise2012 Says:

      I assume you are referring to Google’s personalized search results and not targeted advertising since, by its very nature, online advertising is restricted — whether targeted or not. If so, you are certainly not the only one with this same concern. While Google seems to be standing by their personalized search algorithm and argue that if people don’t like it they can just turn it off, a recent blog post from the Wall Street Journal highlighted how difficult (and inconsistent) “turning it off” really is. My guess is the average web user does not know how to do this, and I think that’s where the problem lies with “personalizing” (aka restricting) search results.

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