Like it or not, being tracked by advertising and search companies is a fact of life on the internet. Detractors of the practice frame it as an invasion of privacy, while its proponents argue that the practice-and the finely targeted advertising it makes possible-is an essential feature of the internet business landscape, which allows free sites such as Google and Yahoo! to post profits without having to charge their users directly.
With consumers' increasing concern over the issue, some in the advertising and search fields think that companies need to change the way consumers think about targeted ads and tracking. In an August article for Advertising Age, CEO Omar Tawakol of online marketing firm BlueKai argued that the problem isn't simply that consumers don't like being tracked. "The industry must do a better job of telling consumers exactly when they are being tracked and what kind of information is being collected about them," wrote Tawakol.
Citing a MarketingSherpa survey of 1,300 consumers that found 87.93% of consumers would rather have ads than pay for content, Tawakol is convinced that the link between free content and targeted ads needs to be made clearer. "Think of how you would react if the next time you go to your favorite website, a notice pops up and says, ‘You may use this site and not see any ads if you pay $5 today (and again the next time you come), or you can use it for free if you allow us to serve you ads and track what you do here to learn more about your potential interests,'" wrote Tawakol. "I suspect I know your answer already."
In addition to educating consumers, Tawakol stated that consumers need to be given direct control over how much of their information gets used and how. A system of preference managers for each major publisher of user data, easily accessible through every page and tied to individual advertisements, would allow users to learn exactly what sort of information is being collected and allow them to opt out of tracking in whole or in part. Tawakol also argued that such privacy standards should be made legally mandatory for companies that wish to share consumer data.
Some sites do offer users the ability to opt out of advertisement tracking systems. Google, for instance, lets users disable the tracking cookie used by its DoubleClick advertising system. Users that choose not to be tracked still receive ads, but the ads will be general advertisements that are not targeted specifically at them. Yahoo! offers users a similar option through the service's account settings page.
Meanwhile, some search companies think that a lack of tracking could be a major selling point for users. Yippy, the family-friendly search engine that was known as Clusty prior to its acquisition by Florida-based Yippy, Inc., is hitching its wagon to just this notion, with anonymity and personal privacy figuring prominently in both the company's press releases and development efforts. In an interview with Search Engine Watch, Yippy CEO Richard Granville laid out the company's plans.
"The family market is the most underserved market for online activities," said Granville. "There is nothing more important than protecting a child's innocence from being robbed by the Internet's easy access to morally reprehensible material. And unlike Google, Yippy's browser and search programs do not track the user with respect to online activities."
With the importance of targeted advertising continuing to grow for electronic content producers, concern over online privacy remains a pressing issue. And judging by a June survey from pollster Zogby International that found 80% of consumers are either "somewhat" or "very" concerned about companies tracking their online habits for the purposes of advertising, it's clearly not an issue that's going away on its own.