Open ... and Shut Privacy advocates endlessly worry that online advertising companies track your every move in order to serve you creepily well-targeted ads. They needn't bother. After all, when was the last time this hyper-invasive tracking of your online behavior actually resulted in you getting a deal on something you really wanted?
And it is invasive. Just ask The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, who discovered that 105 advertising-related companies tracked his online behavior over a 36-hour period. In theory, such tracking is anonymous. In practice, this is not really the case.
While we may not mind a gaggle of marketers sniffing around our online behavior, we may be slightly more squeamish over a digital portfolio collected about us that can so easily be shared with others, including governments, crime syndicates, ex-boyfriends, you name it.
But perhaps that's the price we pay for high-quality online content for free. We pay with our privacy.
Personally, I don't mind this very much. I'm as boring online as I am offline. If someone wants to know just how many gallons of Jersey cow milk I drink a year, that's their loss.
No, what grates on me is that for all the spying these companies do on my online behavior, they can't seem to serve me an ad for something I'd actually want to buy. Worse, they're terrible at delivering anything close to approximating a deal on the things I'd like to buy, even when I tell Google exactly what I want.
For example, I ski a lot. And I spend a reasonable amount of time on Backcountry.com, Rossignol.com and other ski-related sites. Even the most rudimentary tracking technology should know that I'm interested in Rossignol skis (perhaps it would even know I bought two pairs of Rossignol skis this past year), yet when I type in "skis" into Google or even "Rossignol" into Google, the ads served up are for ... something completely different. Even the store that sold me my last pair of Rossignol skis – EVO – keeps trying to show me every kind of ski except Rossignol skis.
And Backcountry.com, which is one of the most aggressive technology adopters among online retailers, serves up a display ad that suggests: "Dynafit, K2, Armada, Salomon & more Free Shipping on Orders Over $50."
Come on, people: if you're going to track my online behavior, at least use it to get me to buy something I want!
It's possible that this mismatch between online behavior and online ads is intentional. Studies have shown that ads that are too finely targeted tend to be less effective, because people get "creeped out" by them.
Still, I'm happy for "creepy" ads to be served to me, if only it resulted in getting a deal. But the most targeted ads tend to be served up on behalf of the big retailers who are least likely to give me a deal worth buying. Instead of matching my interest in Rossignol Super 7s with a real deal on Teton Gravity's gear swap or a Craigslist ad, I'm shown full retail pricing on Backcountry.com, REI, EVO, and even eBay.
I understand that the advertisers willing to pay to track me and show me ads are different from the individuals or companies willing to sell gear for peanuts on these classified ad services. I get that. But as a consumer I'm being asked to give up my privacy for a mess of full-retail priced pottage.
It's not worth it.
There is a disconnect in the online advertising world. Despite widespread adoption of invasive user-tracking tools, consumers are neither getting well-targeted ads, nor deals that would justify that we click on the ads. We're being asked to give up much for very little. This is a raw deal, and perhaps explains why an increasing number of people are worried about online privacy. It's not what we're giving up but what we're getting in return that nettles us. ®
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.