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“Got kitesurfing on the mind, mixed with some search & classification tech, and a dab of political ranting”

Only one company who could possibly care about this Wall St Journal article…Google

Posted by direwolff on November 2, 2006

I guess a slow news day at the Wall Street Journal means writing non-stories. Well, this one titled, “Tailoring Ads to Email Users, Google Has Some Poor Fits”, certainly qualifies because honestly, who cares? What’s worse, it took two writers, Amol Sharma and Kevin Delaney, having nothing to write about to collaborate on this piece. This is probably an article that should have remained behind the fee-based wall on the WSJ site. So lets look at what this costly (to Dow Jones) piece is about.

Apparently, ads in Gmail are not well targeted. Well, if I recall correctly, it wasn’t long ago that many people were bitching about targeted ads in Gmail, positioning it as an invasion of privacy. By the cries at the time, you’d think that Google had an army of people reading Gmail users’ e-mails and associating ads to them. But suffice it to say, even an automated system could be used maliciously, so point taken, and this Journal article does point out that AOL certainly still feels that it’s best not go down this path. So you would think that if Gmail’s ad targeting is poor, then all the concerns were for naught. Hence, the non-story.

However, Sharma and Delaney couldn’t leave it at that, and actually were able to find people whom they claim are making fun of the poorly targeted ads and actually seem to care. At this point, I’d say that all of the people named need to get a life. Since when do people actually sit around looking at the text ads in their e-mail (I use Gmail every day with two accounts and I can’t remember looking at those ads when reading my correspondence) and think, “gee, Google did a lousy job of targeting me”. If anything, they should be happy that Google isn’t actually reading their e-mails very carefully. More importantly, they shouldn’t care at all, much less get quoted in a national newspaper about this.

The other constituency in all of this who might care are advertisers. But in reality, they may not really care either since they only pay when an ad gets clicked on. But they might care if Google penalizes them for getting no clicks on their displayed ads, which is part of Google’s ad ranking formula. So poorly targeted ads could result in the advertiser’s ad ranking dropping. But Sharma and Delaney don’t mention this.

Finally, there’s Google. They might care that there is buzz about their poor targeting and that some people out there (those without a life) are actually talking this up in forums or in the blogosphere, (though in doing a quick scan and search of Tailrank and Techmeme, I found no such discussions). However, from a Google perspective it should be easy not to worry about this, if for no other reason than to use this type of publicity as a way to disarm the pro-privacy groups that keep claiming that Google is violating our privacy rights. Google can’t be doing a good job at violating people’s privacy if their targeting is poor, or so the theory would go.

My hope is that while the authors here created somewhat of a puff piece, that readers will let settle in the back of their minds that the bigger point to capture here is that when you hear about our government’s data mining efforts with things like the “no-fly” list and the previously named “Total Information Awareness” program (which now appears to be operating under different masters and a different name: Tangram), you have to worry that those are also making gross targeting errors on much more serious issues. Now that’s something to care about.

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