Google Gets Into Behavioral Targeting, Launches “Interest-Based Advertising” Beta

Barry Schwartz on
  • Categories: Channel: SEM, Features: Analysis, Google: AdSense, Google: AdWords, Google: DoubleClick
  • Google today is launching a form of behavioral targeting advertising named Interest-Based Advertising. Interest-Based Advertising allows advertisers to deliver ads based on hundreds of interest categories and previous interactions with those users. The beta is opening to select advertisers at first but will be expanded in the upcoming months.

    Brad Bender, Google’s Product Manager in display offerings on Google Content Network, explained that Google is looking to make ads “more interesting” to users and more effective for advertisers. Interest-Based Advertising allows Google to do that by giving users control over their interest categories and advertisers the ability to target based on those categories and user’s previous actions.

    Interest based categories are based on the type of web site a browser visits. For example, if a user visits ESPN often, Google will know that user is interested in sports. Bender told me Google currently has 30 top line categories and about 600 detailed categories. In addition, users have control over these categories and can add or remove categories in the user ad preferences section at

    Previous interaction is the second area of Interest Based advertising where Google is able to show ads to users based on their browsers previous interaction with that advertiser. For example, if a user had a product in their shopping cart and did not check out, the advertiser can display ads on other sites, within the Google network, that promote that product or that product line. This is Google leveraging their DoubleClick technology from the acquisition in April 2007.

    I asked Google how detailed can these ads get? I asked, can an advertiser pass along a specific ad to a specific user? For example, can I show an ad for the Sony HDR-XR200V if this user added the Sony HDR-XR200V to their shopping cart on my site but did not check out? Bender said yes, but ultimately it is up to the advertiser how specific they want to get with those ads.

    Initially, those advertisers included in this beta will have a special portal to manage these ads. But ultimately, it is Google’s goal to build the solution directly into the AdWords console. A larger launch will be made later on in the year, after Google works out any bugs or kinks in the system.

    The nice thing about this ad solution is that the end user has control over what ads they want to see. At the section, a user can add or remove interest categories to fine tune the ads they see, or they can completely opt out of these tailored ads. In addition, Google will have two opt out methods. The first is cookie based that will set a cookie on the browser that will opt out the user of these ads for as long as the cookie is on the computer. The second is a long term cookie based on a browser plugin that allows the user to opt out forever, as long as the browser plugin is active. This browser plugin is available for Internet Explorer and Firefox and is coming soon for Chrome.

    As many of you know, Yahoo is big into display ads. Google is kind of new to this area and this may be considered Google’s big push into this area. This program does include both the display ad and text ad business, but is completely separate from search. That means, search history is not tied to these ads in any way. In addition, Google thinks they have ad advantage on the technology side. Bender told me Google has a lot of experience understanding the context of the page, plus they can use statistical algorithms to figure out the right frequency and recency and leverage based on buyer cycles. In addition, Bender told me, Google’s content network has a reach of 74% globally, according to comScore. Finally, Google is giving users control over the choice of the ads and privacy through the ad preferences area.

    Here are some screen captures of the ad preferences screen:

    Here is a screen capture of the advertising cookie opt-out plugin page:

    If you want to be part of this beta, Brad Bender suggests you contact your Google account manager. The beta is a very limited test right now and Google does hope to expand it later on this year.

    Finally, here is a four minute video on this new Google product:

    Postscript from Greg: Google’s foray into behavioral targeting (BT) in the past had been limited to “previous query targeting,” where one might see text ads on results relevant to prior searches. As Barry discusses above, this move is an enormous step for Google, in my opinion, and it’s the fruit of the DoubleClick acquisition. It also seems like it means the beginning of the end for contextual targeting, which is going to be less effective in most cases.

    No one should be surprised by this move, although it will trigger the usual “big brother” reactions. I don’t want to be dismissive of privacy concerns surrounding Google but stepping back, Yahoo and AOL have been using BT for a very long time. And Yahoo has stepped it up recently to incorporate search queries into the BT targeting mix.

    To Google’s credit the ability to specify one’s interests and opt out of BT here are innovative and provide a bit more transparency to the program (something that Google must do given its position in the market). These features, to the extent they’re used, could also make the program more effective. I’m particularly interested in the ability to select ad preferences here and what it may represent for the future of online — and mobile — advetising.

    Although in the beginning this feature is unlikely to be heavily used, conceptually it represents potential solution to the privacy problems that have dogged BT recently. The FTC has (for now) left it up to the industry to self-regulate guidelines on BT and privacy. But it has effectively said we’re still on the case and watching closely. And in a more regulation friendly political climate things could change over the course of the next year.

    There are lots of privacy studies that show consumer discomfort with tracking and targeting (despite consumer desire for only relevant ads). Most recently Burst Media (n=4,000 US adults) found that consumers are now almost paranoid about tracking and don’t like BT:

    • Over 60% of respondents are aware of the tracking, collecting and sharing of information that occurs as a result of online activities.
    • Respondents do not see value in ads targeted to them based on their web surfing behavior – even if it improves their web surfing experience

    Burst found that “based strictly on a description – advertisements more relevant to interest – only one-in-five (23.2%) respondents would not mind if non-personally identifiable information was collected if ads were better targeted.” This is one survey but the results are generally supported by other surveys in the recent past.

    There remains a big disconnect then between the intensifying use of BT by publishers and search engines and consumer concerns about privacy. The Google approach offers a potential reconciliation of that divide but we’ll have to see how it works out in practice.

    Postscript From Danny Sullivan: I’m off today, so I might come back and add more commentary to this huge change for Google in the future. For now, two notes.

    This is a further extension of Google’s “ads everywhere” changes over the past few months (see Drill, Baby, Drill: Google Finance Gets Ads; Google News Testing Them). Google could have been doing behavioral targeting long ago, even without DoubleClick, but the company has seemed hesitant to do so in my opinion because the privacy worries it would have raised weren’t worth the potential revenue.

    Indeed, back in 2007, from Google: Not Ready To Behaviorally Target, Google’s position then was summarized as “shying away” from building profiles, with Google’s Susan Wojcicki saying:

    “We believe that task-based information at the time (of a user’s search) is the most relevant information to what they are looking at,” she said. “We always want to be very careful about what information would or would not be used.”

    But by the following year, Google took part in an FTC hearing about behavioral targeting. Despite the fallout ISPs that wanted to behaviorally target have taken, Google seems like it can no longer afford to ignore this area.

    The ads in the current program do not appear to be using past search data as part of building profiles. However, Google confirmed in a session I moderated at the Omniture Summit last month that they have tested behaviorial targeted ads using past search history data. Again, that doesn’t seem to be part of this release, but it could come in the future.

    Finally, the use of an opt-out is important. It should help save Google from the fire ISPs took, given that their customers didn’t have an easy option. How clearly that opt-out is displayed will be crucial to help it navigate through the inevitable privacy concerns that will come up.

    About The Author

    Barry Schwartz
    Barry Schwartz is Search Engine Land's News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on SEM topics.