Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Customer or Product?

"Listen, here's the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker." 
- Mike McDermott in Rounders

With that single line at the start of Rounders, 1998's seminal poker movie staring Matt Damon, Damon's character Mike McDermott sets the equation immediately - there are winners and losers, takers and givers, predators and prey.

On the web, the comparable line goes something like this:
"If you're not paying for the product/content/game/etc…, than you are the product" (http://tinyurl.com/andrew-lewis-twitter)

By this point, most web users understand that ads are part of the price we pay for all the free content we insist on. We tacitly, and rarely explicitly,  agree to the tradeoff: they give us content, we view their ads - some more intrusive than others, but they are ever-present on just about every site we visit.

And because we aren't required to click on these ads to get the content we came for, we may come to believe we are in the winner/taker end of the equation - flipping another time-honored tradition - "no free lunches" - on it's head!

However, as some very illuminating new tools point out, web users are "giving" a lot more than they realize, and quite possibly more that they'd be comfortable giving if they had a better idea how much they are giving.

An Example
Last year I was heading to Las Vegas to support a client at their conference at the Venetian. I needed a room so I did a quick Google search and took a look at the Venetian and Palazzo web sites.

For the next month, even though (or quite possibly because) I eventually booked a room, I saw ads for the Palazzo on many of the sites I visited. My visit had created a series of behind the scenes connections that led right back to my browser in the form of ads that target me, or more specifically my interests as expressed by my web behavior.

This sort of 'implicit' personalization has been around since nearly the beginning of the web as site owners and ad networks have striven to take advantage of the more dynamic and fungible nature of web pages, especially when compared with more traditional media like newspapers and magazines.

Now, using a Mozilla plug-in called, aptly enough, Collusion (http://collusion.toolness.org/), it is possible to see the connections being made in the background every time you visit a new page or site.

Tracking the Trackers
After installing Collusion in my Firefox browser I ran the same scenario that I ran through last year to find a room, i.e. Google search, click the link for The Venetian, browse around the site a bit.

Figure 1: Before starting the search, blank window

Figure 2: After browsing the Venetian site

Using Collusion to take a quick look at the companies tracking my visit reveals companies like:
·         Google/DoubleClick
·         ValueClick Media (display advertising network)
·         Right Media (advertising space aggregator/exchange),
·         interclick (which promises that they can: "pinpoint the most responsive digital audience amid the chaos of online data.")
and a half-dozen others.

It's pretty easy to see how my interest in the Venetian was captured and played back for me repeatedly on every site I visited for the next month - there were more ad networks watching my visit to the Venetian site than there were people watching the premiere of the animated Napoleon Dynamite.

And that was just on a simple hotel site - they aren't in the business of maximizing the ad space on their own site, they are tracking you solely for the purpose of finding you again on the web to market, and remarket later.

To see these tactics at their optimizing, targeting best, you need a visit to a major media site, like the San Francisco Chronicle's online arm SFGate see how that kicks off all manner of tracking:

Figure 3: After browsing the SFGate site
This graphic illustrates two key points:

1) The connections that enable the targeted advertising - there are several between the Venetian site and the SFGate site - including Quantcast, Google Display Network/DoubleClick and Meebo

2) The amazing number of networks and 3rd party companies tracking you once you go looking for the "free" content found on major media sites like the SFGate and NYTimes sites

Aggregating vs. Personal Tracking
For the most part these sites aren't really learning all that much about you personally. They are not, for example, noting that Terry Hickman is interested in rooms in Vegas.

Instead, they are noting, by use of dropped cookies, that the browser of an unnamed, unidentified, but closely tracked web user went to these sites and that it is likely that that user is interested in Vegas hotel rooms and by extension flights to Vegas, shows in Vegas and restaurants in Vegas; to name just a couple of the ancillary businesses that might buy into the ad networks looking to market to someone that showed in interest in Vegas.

When this happens, your browsing habits are aggregated with others that have shown similar browsing interests and sold to the ad buyers looking for just the right audience for their ad buys.

Sites offering these highly-targeted and targetable ad networks are able to offer their ad partners access to that most coveted of audiences - one that has already shown an interest in your product or at least your product category.

While nobody at the Venetian (or at their ad networks) was looking at a database with my name in it, they were using my browsing habits to target their ads to increase effectiveness. Because this is happening across multiple networks, it can result in an almost creepy affect where you feel like you are being followed around by these ads.

Now What?
So, what to do with all this new-found understanding about what's going on every time you click a new link or visit a new site? We've looked at this from a couple directions and even found a tool or two that might help you block or manage the tracking going on behind the scenes (we'll put those out in a follow-up post).

For now the bulk of what we are seeing in the background falls more into the "what the hell" or possibly "creepy" rather than the "alarming" or "panic and leave the internet altogether" categories.

As most of you know, while content may want to be free it most certainly isn't - writers have to eat, programmers have to have their Red Bull and the marketing and ad types need their Patron. None of that comes free and so far very few people are handing over their credit cards to get behind pay walls, so for the foreseeable future the tradeoff seems to be eyeballs (yours) for content (theirs).

And maybe, just knowing that's going on moves the equation from hustler v sucker to something more like an equal footing - just maybe...