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March 24th, 2015

Google Wants to Be Super Nielson

Last night I bought a Tracfone online. This morning, when I bring up FOSS Force on the browser, I’m greeted by an ad hawking Tracfones. Likewise, a few months ago after I purchased a coolant reservoir for my 27 year old BMW, I was greeted by ads on every site I visited for companies specializing in parts for old BMWs. We’re all used to this, right? Even if we just conduct a simple Google search, we’re liable to be followed around by ads pertaining to that search for hours, if not days or weeks.

Google Fiber logoWell, guess what? This sort of targeting is coming to your TV soon.

Ad buyers have been saying for quite a while that television advertising is something of a bargain these days when compared to the prices they’re paying to advertise on the Internet. Much of that has to do with targeting, which Google has perfected to a surgical science on the Internet, with a precision that pretty much hasn’t been possible on television. On TV, a company selling articles which primarily appeal to young teen age girls, for example, can buy time on a show that has high numbers in that demographic, but that’s about it — and that’s kept television time relatively cheap.

With the Internet, ad campaigns can be targeted much more narrowly — such as to consumers who’ve already shown an interest in similar products, guaged by their surfing habits. Better yet, by using the pay-per-click model, advertisers don’t have to pay a dime for ads until a user actually clicks on an ad to further investigate the product or service. There’s a rub, however. Those clicks are pretty damn expensive these days, often costing the advertiser a couple of bucks or more for each click — which more often than not isn’t going to result in a sale. This can make acquisition costs for new customers astronomically high.

Now, according to an article published Friday by Adweek, Google plans on changing all that through technology it’s developing to use on its Google Fiber network.

“‘Fiber TV ads will be digitally delivered in real time and can be matched based on geography, the type of program being shown (sports, news, etc.), or viewing history,’ the company explains in a blog post….

‘Like digital ads, advertisers will only pay for ads that have been shown, and can limit the number of times an ad is shown to a given TV. We’re excited to see how this test progresses, and we’re looking forward to hearing from local businesses and viewers along the way.'”

Although it might seem to be good news that Google promises to let viewers opt out of having their viewing history tracked, it’s doubtful that this will be enough to satisfy privacy advocates, as pointed out Saturday by Ian Paul on PCWorld.

“Google Fiber’s program will likely raise privacy concerns since the company wants to target advertising based on viewer habits. Privacy is a little bit different, however, with Google the cable/Internet provider versus Google the online monolith.

“First, Google Fiber already knows a customer’s physical location in order to deliver its services and monthly bills. Showing ads based on current programming also shouldn’t be a problem since it’s just a more precise version of the demographic ad targeting that happens now. But storing your viewing history to target ads is new and that’s where some subscribers may be uncomfortable—especially if it gets tied to your Google account.”

For the time being, if we keep our blinders on this all seems to be rather benign — but how long until it morphs into something more malignant?

Remember, Google Fiber is essentially an ISP, with the main purpose of bringing the Internet to subscribers computers and mobile devices. How long before Google decides to also take into account data they’ve collected on subscribers’ surfing habits when deciding what ads to insert into reruns of Gilmore Girls? Is the day coming when we buy an air filter for an old 70s model Dodge online and are then inundated for a couple of weeks by TV ads for businesses specializing in old Mopar parts?

As they used to say on an old TV show: You can bet your bippy on it.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

7 comments to Google Wants to Be Super Nielson

  • Mike

    TV – Does that still exist? Haven’t watched it in years.

    Targeted ads – I haven’t seen these either, probably because I run AdBlock Plus and NoScript.

  • Duncan

    I’m with Mike. I gave up TV because I hated the lack of control. Not only relative to the ads (which I could at least use the 30-second-skip button on, back in the day of serial-access VHS tape), but also in relation to the program, which unlike an article on the net, I pretty much had to watch end to end in order, no 125%-speed (keeping pitch the same), etc, buttons like youtube has now, and no real ability to skim.

    Of course ad-blocking worked better on the net as well, and to this day I’ve not had the experience of buying something and being followed by the ads (tho I’ve certainly read of it before), not only because I don’t actually see many ads, but also because I have the trackers blocked about five ways to Sunday, so the ad purveyors (at least ideally, and it does seem to actually work) haven’t a clue what back history I have.

    That’s so much so that the other day when I was actually shopping for something and began to see history for stuff I’d already looked at on the same site (which I generally don’t block, automatically accepting same-domain cookies and scripts for the session only), I was moderately both amused and disconcerted. Similarly when watching youtube and seeing subject-unrelated but youtubing-history-related hits after switching to a different subject in the same youtube session.

    Tho I don’t use adblock. I use primarily noscript, request-policy (which blocks third party resources on a page unless specifically allowed, much like noscript does with scripts), and disconnect (which blocks specific but common trackers including facebook, google and twitter). I also use privoxy, but primarily for color rewriting as I prefer a “reversed” scheme with light text on a dark background, and only secondarily for ad/tracker-blocking these days, as request-policy in particular is so effective I don’t really need the others so much any more.

    As for online ads, I deliberately don’t block first-party ads that a site supplies itself from the same domain. But that occurs /extremely/ seldom, as most sites are so splintered up these days that they serve main text content from one domain, images from at least one (and often a dozen) other(s), ads, even if so-called self-hosted, from still others, and scripts and CSS, you guessed it, from still others. I /know/ this, as the first few times I visit a site I have to decide which of these additional domains to allow via request-proxy, and which to keep blocked.

    Youtube (which is serving HTML5 for firefox so I can actually watch it in the browser) in particular, has an arrangement of multiple video server domains often two levels deep. So not only have I had to allow (I think) several dozen youtube-to-video-server-domain connections as I’ve come across them, with the second level I’ve had to allow several hundred specific video-server-to-video-server connections as I’ve come across them. I’ve permanently enabled enough specific video-server-to-video-server connections that it’s working most of the time now, but I still come across new connections I have to enable from time to time. (OTOH, when I tried to enable media source extensions in firefox configuration mania it all went to crap, as at least on youtube those things seem to be dynamically random-generated, so repeatedly enabling and refreshing does no good as you just repeatedly get a different random that’s not yet enabled on refresh. Needless to say that option got immediately disabled again!)

    But I’ve yet to see youtube ads (except those directly embedded in the content itself, subscribe and watch-next links, etc), and any related tracking cookies die with the session. =:^)

  • Colonel Panik

    No TV. More important no google. Nope.

    I have no idea how google fits into the FOSS world.
    Google may comply with the GPL, may, but I do not
    see how it keeps the spirit of FOSS.

    I fear the internet was just a dream some of us had.

  • @Colonel From where I sit, Google either has dissociative identity disorder or is a garden variety schizophrenic — maybe both. Sometime Google is Jekyll. Sometimes Hyde.

  • Nonya F Bizzness

    First of all, I do not watch over the air broadcast TV. I do not use any streaming service that has ads with the excxeption of the occasional youtube video. If I am paying for content, I will not accept any ads inserted into that content. I do everything that I can not to be tracked in my use of the internet, and do everything that I can to block all ads.

    I never minded static ads on web pages. I only started blocking ads when they started getting obnoxious. Now the ads have gone beyond obnoxious to headache inducing. And targeted ads are an extreme invasion of privacy that I will do whatever I have to to avoid. That includes not buying “smart” TVs, or appliences that are designed so that they have to be connected to the internet to work, with the exception of my router, my Roku, and my computer.

    I realize that it may not be possible to totally avoid being tracked, or to totally avoid advertising (targeted or not). As far as I am concerned, all information about me and my personal habbits is just that…PERSONAL, AS IN NO NO-ONE’S BUSINESS BUT MINE!!! As far as I am concerned, NO ONE has any right to collect ANY information about me FOR ANY REASON! Certainly not for purposes of trying to sell me products that I neither want nor need!

    Marketing has become EVIL!

  • Colonel Panik

    @ Christine Hall Thanks, that is what I wanted to
    say.

    Still, I am not using their products cause I cannot
    tell when it is Jekyll or Hyde.

  • Carling

    I don’t have Google or Google search on my system, I removed it, I use Mozilla firefox web browser and duckduck go. for my web search..