Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Search Engine Ads and Target Demographics

Imagine you're house-sitting at your parents house for the weekend. You've just fried yourself up some shrimp scampi, and you're in search of a nice Pinot Grigio to supplement the meal. But, what's this? Your dad's locked up the wine closet? And hidden the key, to boot?

This is outrageous! you think to yourself. Not only does this betray an insane lack of paternal trust, but I'm storing some of my own personal wines in there! What if I wanted to get at those during my stay here? Am I not allowed? Outrageous!

So you decide to be a little enterprising. There's a paperclip lying on the table. And check out this super thin file, long yet sturdy. You think to yourself, Hey, I'm probably just as talented as MacGyver; picking this lock should be easy!

Making absolutely no progress after several minutes of attempting this task - and after your succulent scampi has cooled to a less-than-delectable room temperature - you decide to enlist some help from the Internet. Find out what happens next after the jump...

The top Google search results for "how to pick a lock" are from a website called wikiHow.com. The first one explains the process in great detail, but it assumes you have access to a handy tool called a tension wrench and a series of different sized picks. Well, sure, you think to yourself, anything's easy if you have the right tools. But my dinner's already getting cold, and I don't want to make a trip to the hardware store.

The second hit, also from wikiHow, is entitled "How to Pick a Lock With Household Items." This looks promising, you think, your eyes lighting up with anticipation. But this article is completely useless! According to the advice contained therein, picking a lock is as simple as inserting a paperclip or a flat sided hair pin into the keyhole, and BAM, you're done. How could it possibly be that easy - otherwise, what would be the point of having locks in the first place?

So you try the third hit. Ooh, this looks interesting: lockpickguide.com. It's well-organized, with a nifty looking nav bar on the left hand side. It's well-presented, even including a pleasantly-worded introduction telling you exactly what to expect from the site. But just as you're about to dive right in, something gives you pause. It's a pair of ads by Google, interrupting the text, just at the bottom of the screen. One is for local Krav Maga training facilities, the other is a more general "learn self-defense" service.

You're not completely sure about the workings of Google ads, but you seem to recall hearing somewhere that the feature tracks the most visited sites by people who also visit the site in question (in this case, lockpickguide.com), then includes ads for similar sites on lockpickguide.com. If this is indeed the case, then one can assume a fairly large contingent of people who want to use forced entry techniques and self-defense in conjunction with one another.

You hit reload, just to see if anything changes. This time, the pair of ads reads: "How to Get Off the Grid" and "How to make Electricity." One more reload reveals ads for "Bulletproof and Combat VEST" and "Military Body Armor." Quite a laundry list of red flag-raising interests for people who like to visit this site: they want to pick locks, kick ass, and live without relying on the electricity provided by the power grid. They're also expecting to see plenty of heavy combat and gunfire.

Could all web surfers who are curious about lock picking have such [deviant?] [counterculture?] interests? you ask, as you return to those wikiHow articles. Nope, just ads for pick/tension wrench sets and locksmiths. Could it be that you just happened to stumble on an elusive and self-sufficient group of super-crafty, super-violent ninja thieves? Stranger things have happened on the Internet...

But if you, a common internet surfer, could discover so much about the type of people who visit a certain site, just think of the information to which the folks at Google are privy to. They must have a huge network of tracking software that can reliably tell exactly who visits which sites, generalize that data into what the viewers might be interested in, and then manufacture effective advertisements for those interests. They have a similar process for producing ads on Gmail, Google's email service: a bot purportedly scans your emails for keywords and sends those words to a processing system, which stamps ads on your sidebar. This has become so extensive, that if you include an address in your email, you will see a link to a Google map of that address in your mail window.

They claim that no actual living human being sees the content your emails - but even if that's the case, what's to prevent Google's minions from looking at the content of your ads, then divining what you were writing about in the first place? Blogging celebrity Cory Doctorow already examined what might happen in this scenario, and it's quite a fun read. Hopefully either Google's intentions are pure, or the fact that people on the Internets have wised up to the danger may cause them to back off from whatever nefarious plots they may have had in the works. But if they wanted to carry out some mass identity theft/invasion or privacy caper, could anybody even stop them at this point?

I doubt if Google has the will to commit any crimes with the information they've gathered over the years. Their well-oiled machine was most likely engineered for the rather benign purpose of increasing revenues through an aggressive marketing campaign. The more they know about the interests of their target demographics, the more likely they are to click on the links provided, which increases site activity, which makes it more likely that other advertisers will buy space on their sites. Well-oiled indeed.

The more you think about it, it's a little overwhelming what a tremendous role advertising has played in our lives. Billboards tower over our freeways. Names of banks, insurance companies, and corporate megagiants adorn our sports stadiums. Commercials interrupt our favorite TV programs and delay the start times of our favorite movies. Pop-up ads jump out at us from behind our favorite websites. And now these cyber ads are being tailored to fit our personal interests. Where will it all end?

Internet marketing has the benefit of being almost instantaneous - if I see an ad for a product (say, some military grade body armor), through a series of clicks and credit card numbers, I can order said product without leaving the security of my computer, or talking to a single human being. Television is not nearly as efficient: the best a TV ad can do is provide me with a phone number and urge me to "Call Now!" to receive FREE Processing & Handling.

So far, Google has mastered the art of internet marketing better than any other conglomerate. Some advertisers may shift over to Bing because of its superior layout, but even when you search through a site through Bing, those ads by Google still show up in the site itself. That's an unprecedented ability to get inside my head and try to sell me stuff.

I don't know if being aware of the pervasiveness of intrusive ads makes me feel any better about the practice. But I figure a little awareness never hurt anybody...