Our Internet Behavior, Ourselves? Sorry, Advertisers, Not So Much


Last week I wrote a post about the push-pull aspects of targeting advertisements to Web users based on their online behavior. Advertisers insist such ads will vastly improve the Internet experience, while many folks see it as an invasion of privacy. (Are there really still people who don't realize that everything they do online is stored on a server somewhere? Huh.)


Just how effective are targeted advertisements, anyway? Maybe a little too effective? I think some of the privacy concerns come down to folks worrying that they expose too much of themselves while navigating the pseudo-anonymous Internet. Consider a recent Florida obscenity case (settled out of court before it went to trial).


According to The Washington Post, the defendant's lawyer sought to prove that the material on his client's Web site wasn't obscene because "orgies" was a popular search term in Pensacola. The Web analytics used to determine this are more telling than, say, the number and types of pornographic films available in area video stores because private (or pseudo-private) actions are more indicative of true behavior patterns, says the lawyer.


The lawyer compared data for Pensacola against dozens of other cities and also compared search patterns for "orgies" to ones for other, more innocuous terms like "boating" and "apple pie." (Like many lawyers, this one seems fond of controversy -- the more public, the better.)


How valid are the assumptions based on this data? It lacks a key element: context.


Sure, someone searching for "Peru" may be interested in taking a vacation there, notes the Post article. But they may also just want to know its gross domestic product or any number of other things about it. According to the article:

Google is where we safely learn about swinging, erotic furries, objectum-sexual (don't ask, just Google) and a whole manner of other subcultures that we don't necessarily plan to partake in, but feel compelled to research nonetheless. Because we can. Because they're there. Because we can ask our own mothers for apple pie recipes. "Orgy" might be a popular search term not because it's a popular practice, but because it's not.

The same argument could apply just as easily to advertising as to obscenity. Until advertisers can actually get inside our heads -- which some are admittedly trying pretty hard to do -- there will still be lots of erroneous advertising.