There are few absolutes in security and privacy and I spend a lot of my time weighing benefits and risks. There is often no right answer and we’re often left contemplating how to best manage risks so that business can continue.

But, every so often, there’s an exception. Like late last week, when I was asked for my advice regarding Google’s decision to commence far more intrusive targeted advertising in April. My recommendation: Pull the plug on AdSense. And pull it now.

I’m generally a fan of Google. I use Gmail because I’m willing to ignore ads for the free service they provide.  I have organizations I’m associated with set up on Google apps to leverage their email because it works great and free is a hard price to beat. And, while I’ve had concerns about Google Analytics, I’ve been able to live with it because it collects the same type of information that is contained in Web server logs — it just does a better job of analyzing it.

Until their recent announcement, I didn’t have much of a problem with AdSense, either. Google selects the ads based upon their analysis of the Web page and the geographic location of the user as determined by their IP address. They may not be particularly good ads but I didn’t characterize it as a significant privacy violation.  But Google’s email last week changed that:

“Interest-based advertising will allow advertisers to show ads based on a user’s previous interactions with them, such as visits to advertiser website and also to reach users based on their interests (e.g. “sports enthusiast”). To develop interest categories, we will recognize the types of web pages users visit throughout the Google content network. As an example, if they visit a number of sports pages, we will add them to the “sports enthusiast” interest category.”

In other words, Google’s new world plan is to track users across sites, categorize the users, and present ads based upon the user’s browsing habits.  And, according to their Web site, online publishers can only partially opt-out:

“You can opt out of showing ads that are based on user interest categories (e.g. ‘sports enthusiasts’). In turn, Google will not use visitation information from your sites to help create interest categories. However, you cannot opt out of showing ads to users based on their previous interactions with the advertiser, such as visits to an advertiser’s website.”

From a privacy perspective, that is simply unacceptable.  Showing ads based upon a user’s previous interactions requires that the user be identified in some way.  That’s not an ‘opt out’.

We’ve known for years that some advertising networks track users with cookies and we’ve expected that they mine the information. This recent announcement by Google demonstrates that they’re not only willing to collect that information but to also tag users with unique identifiers or a set of categories. They will actively use that information to target advertising and will not allow online publishers to opt out.  Participating in this scheme is wrong.

And, if respecting people’s privacy isn’t a good enough reason to pull the plug, here’s a good business reason: Tools already exist to block advertisements. Some of our more tech savvy readers have shared that they never see AdSense ads, anyway. Google is now giving all of us a very good reason to do the same. As the backlash against this tracking grows, fewer people will see the AdSense ads. Web sites that continue to show them will be avoided.  AdSense revenues will plummet.

When I visit a Web site, I’m fine with the owner knowing my IP address. I’m fine with them using that information to discern traffic patterns. And I’m fine with them using a reputable third party service to perform that analysis. But I’m most certainly not fine with Google tracking me from site to site, for any reason. I demand the right to ‘opt out’. You should demand that right too.

Time to pull the plug on AdSense.

8 Responses to Google AdSense: Time to Pull the Plug

  1. Evolving Squid
    Mar 16, 2009

    Simple solutions for web users:

    1. block cookies except from the most trusted sites you visit. Most sites that set a cookie only do so for user tracking. If the site blocks you because you wouldn’t accept their cookies, are you really missing anything? The list of places I accept cookies from is quite short, and limited to places where I want my preferences kept between sessions. Some places I take the session cookie but delete it when the browser closes (like this blog). Most places’ cookies are unceremoniously dropped.

    2. Install firefox ( )

    3. Install adblock plus on firefox ( )

  2. Mike CJ
    Mar 16, 2009

    I’ve been thinking about this as well Eric, and I’ve come to the opposite conclusion. As a “consumer” of websites, I accept that most sites need to sell advertising as part of their business model. I’d much rather see adverts targeted to my interests as a consumer than otherwise. As an example, I’m a scuba diver, so I guess Google will learn that over time, and will serve me with scuba related ads. I’m quite happy with that! I may find out about products I didn’t know about before.
    I think this move might actually make Adsense ads visible again to Joe Public, which has to be a good thing.
    Sorry – but you did say on Twitter that this might be controversial, so I thought I’d get the debate going!

  3. Eric Jacksch
    Mar 16, 2009

    Mike, thanks for your comments — debate and opposing viewpoints are always welcome here. I think this is an issue that needs much more discussion.

    My concern is that there is no opt-out. You might be comfortable with it and I might not care either. In fact, some of us might prefer targeted ads because they’re more interesting to us. But some people are very uncomfortable about being profiled by advertisers and I think it’s bad business to force it on them.

    To put a Canadian perspective on it, I think that one’s surfing habbits in aggregate may constitute personal information. That has significant legal implications in this country.

    Globally, I don’t know how this is going to play out.

  4. Birdfree
    Mar 16, 2009

    I am using the google adsense and adwords.

  5. Evolving Squid
    Mar 16, 2009

    The sum of all my objection to advertising is this: I don’t want ads in my face. What I want is to know where ads can be found, so when I seek information, I can find it.

    Filling my very existence with advertisements does NOT help. It just contributes to information overload. I think that every person only has so much time to pay attention. Our lives are hectic. We neither need nor want to waste time with ads.

    What we want is clear, simple ways to access the information we need. To me, that means that sales sites (retailers, and manufacturers) need to have cleaner, easier to access sites. Search engines need better ways of sorting through the chaff to get to the wheat.

    I just dropped $800 on a Yaesu VX-8R and some accessories. I didn’t do that based on an ad. I did it because a friend had a VX-7R, and when I looked that up I found info on the VX-8R. It was easy to find info. It was info connected to what I was doing. It was relevant and non-intrusive.

    That’s where advertising should be going.

  6. Mike CJ
    Mar 16, 2009

    I’m drawn to comment again, this time to Evolving Squid. How do you think Yaesu became the market leader in radio equipment? Through advertising! It’s the only way new brands can get themselves into an existing market. If you turn off all the advertising due to “information overload” you could end up missing the new piece of radio kit that was launched yesterday that does everything the VX-8R does and more for $540. Now, imagine you’re browsing my scuba diving site and Google serves up an ad about this new piece of kit (because it knows you’re into radio from your browsing history) then that’s the moment you need to go and find your clear simple information.

  7. Evolving Squid
    Feb 01, 2010

    Gonna necromancer this one because I must have missed Mike’s response last year.

    If I imagine I’m on your scuba site, I’m definitely not interested in radio ads. I’m there to look for Scuba information.

    More to the point, unless I’m shopping for radios, I don’t care what the latest and greatest radio is or does. When I’m shopping for radios, then I want to be able to find reliable information about the latest and greatest radios. When i’m reading about scuba safety, I don’t want to see anything about shopping.

    In fact, seeing ads when i am not interested has a negative impact on my likelihood of future purchase. Seeing too many ads makes me think “Must be crap: they blew their money on advertising instead of quality.”


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