Google's new interest-based ads look less like 'Big Brother' than 'big bother'

This morning, Google's initial experiment with so-called behavioral advertising officially emerges from beta. The company's categorical system for targeting users' interests is now officially under way, with tracking of responses to ads now active by default for all users who read Google AdSense-affiliated sites (including Betanews).

As a video posted to Google's advertising support site explains, Google's system is already maintaining cookies on users' computers that contain codes relating to categories of the users' interests, both ascertained and designated. A user may go to Google's preferences site (linked above) to choose specific interest categories, which are less like department store categories and more like content categories.

In other words, if merchandising were the key goal of this system, then "location" might be a problem. For example, in the optional preferences system, we hunted down "Jewelry" -- still one of the most valuable and high-margin segments of the retail market. We found it as a subcategory of a category: specifically, Shopping, Luxury Goods, Gems & Jewelry. This categorical taxonomy is likely in alignment with how Google categorizes its advertiser clients, though it might be confusing to some Internet users.

I'm still trying to find "musical instruments" as a category, for instance -- there's plenty of Music categories, but that's all about listening to it, not making it. And I was surprised to find Paintball as one of three subcategories of Hobbies, but no Painting or Sculpting.

Today's announcement was greeted by many with the now-typical Google suspicion, especially with regard to the notion that "Big Brother" may now officially be online. Google does officially subscribe to the code of the Network Advertising Initiative (PDF available here), which mandates that members give users clear instructions as to what personally-identifiable information (PII), if any, is being collected, and how users can opt out of the collection process. We found Google presents both that information and the "Opt Out" button quite clearly, although access to that button from the "Ads by Google" link on many video ads this morning did not take us to that button as advertised.

On his Marketing Pilgrim blog this morning, Andy Beal asked and answered a question as to whether Google should make this process "Opt In" instead. "Shouldn't we be concerned about our every move being tracked on the Internet? My response? I'm sorry to tell you that the Web is no longer a haven of obscurity," Beal wrote. "You should assume that all Web sites track your every move, that web analysts are able to pinpoint your location, eating habits, and TV-watching preferences, and you should also assume that every time you open your browser, you're agreeing to all of this."

If that's correct, then I would assume "my every move" includes interests such as making music and producing sculpture -- categories that Google, at least for now, cares nothing about. I was also relieved (pardon the pun) not to find categories for places where my every move might lead me -- for instance, the bathroom. Categorical interests barely scratch the surface in knowing about a person's character traits or habits or scholarly pursuits, any more than a sociologist might draw conclusions about the character of people who shop a department store based solely on each department's daily receipts. If this truly is "Big Brother" at work, then maybe we may find some comfort in the knowledge that he isn't all that interested in who we are or what we're doing after all.

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