Phorm/Google Behavioral Ad Targeting - Based on Your Browsing Data

Phorm, a UK company that partnered with BT to run secret trials to target ads based on usage data, was roasted by the media with article titles like Phorm’s All-Seeing Parasite Cookie.

Google, which has long stayed away from behavioral targeting due to privacy (and negative publicity) concerns, announced they are jumping into the behavioral ad targeting market:

Google will use data it collects about what Web sites users visit and what it knows about the content of those sites to sort its massive audience of users into groups such as hockey fans or travel enthusiasts. The data won't be drawn from users' search queries, but from text files known as cookies that Google installs on the Web browsers of users who visit pages where it serves ads.

DoubleClick, AdSense, Google Toolbar, Gmail, Youtube, Blogger, Google Groups, Google Checkout, Google Chrome, Google Analytics...there are lots of ways to track you, even if you do not want to be tracked. Google will allow users to opt out of such targeting, with yet another cookie, but if you clear cookies then you are back in the matrix again.

And while Google claims they are not using search queries in their current behavioral targing, Danny Sullivan wrote:

Google confirmed in a session I moderated at the Omniture Summit last month that they have tested behaviorial targeted ads using past search history data. Again, that doesn’t seem to be part of this release, but it could come in the future.

As discovered during early Google research titled The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine:

we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Indeed. Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, spoke out against behavioral targeting:

"People use the web in a crisis, when wondering whether they have a sexually transmitted disease, or cancer, when wondering if they are homosexual and whether to talk about it … to discuss political views."
"The power of this information is so great that the commercial incentive for companies or individuals to misuse it will be huge," he said. "It is absolutely essential to have absolute clarity that it is illegal."

If Google continues down this path unquestioned, then in due time you may not be able to get health insurance because of a web page you viewed or a keyword you trusted Google enough to search for. Better luck next life!

Published: March 11, 2009 by Aaron Wall in google


March 11, 2009 - 3:29pm

I understand the privacy concerns. Though on the flip side, ads which are more relevant to a user's interests would be of more benefit to the user.

I don't really care about ads about household cleaning products, for example, but as a movie buff I might actually like to see the movie advertisements about upcoming films...especially the video ads where I can watch the trailers right there.

Again, I certainly understand the concerns about privacy in daily life, and I'm not saying that this is really a good thing, per se. But there are pluses as well as minuses and they often aren't mentioned.

March 11, 2009 - 3:43pm

Check out Google's patent to exploit people based on mental weaknesses observed through video game play:

Examples of information that could be useful, particularly in massive multiplayer online RPG’s, may be the specific dialogue entered by the users while chatting or interacting with other players/characters within the game. For example, the dialogue could indicate that the player is aggressive, profane, polite, literate, illiterate, influenced by current culture or subculture, etc. Also decisions made by the players may provide more information such as whether the player is a risk taker, risk averse, aggressive, passive, intelligent, follower, leader, etc. This information may be used and analyzed in order to help select and deliver more relevant ads to users.

Now think about the concepts of risk taker vs risk adverse in the context of offering financial products of various levels of quality at various price-points. Some of those "targeted" ads may destroy people's lives to earn an extra couple dollars.

Amoral profit driven machines recommend whatever pay the most, even if the offer is illegal.

March 11, 2009 - 4:12pm

This is another way that you could be handing a massive advantage over to Google by using a lot of its products and services, and one reason I'm trying to reduce my reliance on them. Do we really want one company to know so much?

The Register have been running negative stories about Phorm for a long time. You would have thought BT would wise up and drop all talk of it, since it's so unpopular.

It's important that webmasters don't give Phorm the opportunity to argue that what they're planning is already in place through the way ads are currently tracked. One way to ensure this doesn't happen is to spread your advertising around a bit. Don't let one or two companies monopolise and gather user data from all of your pages.

March 11, 2009 - 6:50pm

I think with the amount of potential data that can be collected by Google, as pointed out by Aaron through the various sites and software, behavioral based targeting is INEVITABLE.

When I stopped and thought about the potential lucrative benefit for advertisers with behavioral targeting, its just a matter of time before all of this data is utilised.

As every day passes, offline media such as newspapers, magazines and billboards are being shadowed by online marketing.

March 12, 2009 - 10:50am

From the business point of view, Google is doing the right thing, whether we like it or not. They maximize their profits. Violating our privacy in the meantime - well, there should be ways to opt out for the users but how many non-pro users will even know how to opt out?

March 12, 2009 - 11:15am

I think they would be better off making it opt in than opt out, but they won't do that because they no that virtually nobody wants the crap.

March 12, 2009 - 3:14pm

>Though on the flip side, ads which are more relevant to a user's interests would be of more benefit to the user.<

BULLSHIT!!!!! it is a total invasion of privacy and a travesty against the most basic of human rights! Like any human on the planet has to look very far to find ANYTHING he wants to buy you G narc.

I honestly don't understand why any/all of the human rights orgs don't file a class action suit in every country that has ads being displayed by google or any one else totally abusing their power due to data access. Are we really all going to just sit back and let them treat us like nothing more than money machines of the immaculate consumption persuasion?

don't be evil my ass! Using private data that you know damn well is private and that you had no permission or right to access in the first place is so far beyond unethical I can't think of a word big enough to describe what a colossal breach of trust they are perpetrating on a global scale.

I tried my best to get people to listen back in 2002 when all anyone wanted to talk about was what a spammer I was for trying to sell PR but I kept saying over and over that it was about restraint of trade and unlimited power without accountability.

I failed miserably in delivering that message,(I still see it as the greatest failure of my life), but I ask myself almost everyday, how much are we, not as SEO's or even internet marketers, but as human beings, going to take before we realize we're giving away our basic right to simple decency and respect, before we finally accept that enough is enough and demand accountability from any company that publicly states it has every intention of stealing every trickle of traffic from every publisher on the planet for their own selfish agenda with little regard,(beyond possible negative public relations), for fairness, for fair competition in an open, global market and for living up to their motto of don't be evil ?

Write some body. Write EVERY BODY! Write blog posts, talk about it in your forum and blog comments. Bitch about it at Sphinn, at techmeme, bitch about it EVERYWHERE! Write articles and press releases and anything else you can think of and if you do that, at the least we go to slaughter like lions instead of lambs. It is not just a fight for individual rights, it is a fight to decide who is going to dictate the terms of global enterprise.

I apologize for the rant but this issue really scares me and it has for a long time.

Heidi Powell
March 13, 2009 - 5:28am

It scares me as well. So does this article "At Risk: Universal Online Access to All Knowledge" that brings into question a lawsuit settlement over Google's scanning and use of books in Google Book Search.

March 12, 2009 - 3:24pm

Great comment Bob!

March 12, 2009 - 3:58pm

Lenin's famous statement that capitalism will even sell you the rope you're going to hang it with holds true here, too: regardless the "Google is your useful friend" kool-aid they're doling out by the ton, they're not fooling too many media replicators anymore.

Neither is the political class in its entirety buying into it any longer: the amount of personal and generic data gathering and processing G has been conducting these past years has effectively turned them into a strategic risk on multiple levels. (Who controls data access will also control data as such - enabling whichever type of disinformation campaigns called for by the policy of the day...)

In the European Union this has long been recognized by the more tech savvy political leaders, which is one reason why they've started to pump millions of taxpayer euros into an EU alternative search engine. (Not to "protect privacy" so much - it's merely that they want their share of the data mining pie, of course.)

And guess why this article was published on "Criminal Justice USA" of all unlikely platforms:

And they don't even address G's Web Accelerator spyware nor the recently announced Google Voice service...

March 12, 2009 - 5:30pm

That article was published to be a linkbait to pull links in for a lead generation site fantomaster. Real content would have went into much deeper depth rather than being so surface oriented. And it would not have missed some of the obvious snooping tools, especially web accelerator. :)

I know who the site owner is just by looking at the blog need to look at whois data or anything else ;)

March 12, 2009 - 3:58pm

I blogged about how I believe this will affect publishers and users over on the SEO Chicks blog yesterday. It's a bad move on so many levels.

Business blog
March 12, 2009 - 10:22pm

I guess it does depend on what side of the fence you sit on this one - obviously from a business perspective it makes absolute sense that Google and other companies track your behaviour and why not, if I could I would and use to to my own advantage. However, that being said, as a user I am not quite sure whether I like the idea of being tracked in this way, it is a bit like "Big Brother is Watching You"!

March 12, 2009 - 11:50pm

If you use Google Analytics it is against their TOS for you to even know the IP address of your own website visitors, and yet they spy on users all across the web via a cookie. Shady of them IMHO.

March 13, 2009 - 7:42am


I have an idea but I don't have the means/resources to complete it (due to cutbacks at Refuge Design and I got bigger fish to fry).

Why don't we all (Wall [you], Massa, Gray, Hoffman, Sullivan, and anyone else that truly see's the lies of Google, and me) get together. Make a site. And Mobilize the people.

Mobilize the general public.

Provide resources on Google intentions and evil behaviors.
Give them actionable things.
Lobby congress about it.
Have regional leaders (maybe each industry leader [or motivated person] in their respected area)

The end means is to solve the issue of Google's fowl play. But to also prevent Microsoft, Yahoo, and maybe even browser data (Firefox, Safari, etc) from being very personal.

I think congress/senate/president/nor the general public understand the serious implications here.

They just need someone to tell the story (Seth Godin...."All Marketers are Lyers" [I'm reading it. :D]

And market the snot out of it of course.

Each industry leader has a vast well of 'leverage power' and together. We could slap Google and others from malpractice.

Just an idea (I get millions of them, but sadly can't act on all of them) and hopefully someone do something.

P.S. My 'bigger fish to fry' is Africa. My heart is for Africa. They got a crap load of debt (haha. only 200 Billion; 1/4 of our stimlus package; or 1% of All American's income, for just one year)). Etc, etc. You name it. Africa is getting royally screwed and I'm preparing/planning a few things to see if I can be a catalyst for this issue (and the others) to be solved.

March 13, 2009 - 11:04am

You can opt out on a permanant basis (in Firefox anyway) using the Advertising Cookie Opt-out plugin, which is linked to on the Ads Preferences page.

Outrage and rants are great, but some of you have great influence that could be used to educate the massess, if anything your goal should be to inform people about their rights and what they can do to stop this kind of thing, not start a scrap with the big G.

Putting pressure on Mozilla to make this plugin a forced install in Firefox (and therefore making this stuff opt-in) could be interesting route to go to.

Or perhaps SEO book could include this in it's tools as one of it's features. Aaron?

March 14, 2009 - 2:26am have to use a plug in that forces another cookie to hope that prevents you from getting whacked by another cookie. The stupidity of Google's opt out system just goes to show why the system should be opt in rather than opt out.

Google's rights to exploit users are driven by public perception of the strategy. My post was not a rant. Tim Berners-Lee WAS educating the masses when he said "It is absolutely essential to have absolute clarity that it is illegal."

It doesn't get any clearer than that - the way you sort out this issue is through public awareness, public outrage, and public policy.

Cause enough public relations damage and either Google backs off, or the governments of the world regulate them appropriately.

I doubt Mozilla is going to force-block and Google ad "innovation" when most of Mozilla's revenues come from Google (through income from Google ads).

March 13, 2009 - 12:42pm

>Why don't we all (Wall [you], Massa, Gray, Hoffman, Sullivan, and anyone else that truly see's the lies of Google, and me) get together. Make a site. And Mobilize the people.<

good link bait but it won't work in terms of protecting our privacy or securing any kind of accountability.

You do realize you are talking about going up against one of the worlds great media manipulating machines right? how hard is it going to be for G to get a few wall street journals to print articles with headlines like
Spammers demand privacy!

A few well placed comments on sphinn from lurkers whose job it is to sway public opinion in their favor when we all get the old -1000 penalty and who is going to cry for who?

Of course it doesn't matter if it's seo's or not. the PR wheels would pretty much roll the same way no matter who it was on the net. If it was programmers, they would become hackers. If it was lawyers, they would become ambulance chasers trying to make a buck. If it was Daniel Brandt,they would become a "nut".

that's why it needs to be a consumer rights advocacy group. A human rights defender, a governmental agency etc.

We can all join together and find our collective page ranks totaling up to less than SearchKing's. Oh wait,there is nothing less than 0. By the way, they do hold a grudge.

all we can do is alert and encourage people to open their eyes and contact their politicians, consumer protection people, and anyone else that has the "clout" to bring political pressure to bear. Or at least be "open" to alternatives.


March 13, 2009 - 8:04pm

I got the official email saying it was my responsibility to change my site's Privacy Policy to comply with the new AdSense by April 8, 2009... I tried to make some sense of it for AdSense publishers and web surfers:

AdSense Privacy? - Need New Ad Provider

The technology is called the "DoubleClick DART cookie" - and it requires you to download an "opt-out cookie" if you want to avoid the spying... So if you clear cookies regularly, you might want to make your home page the "cookie opt out" link.

If anyone has had success with other networks like Bidvertiser or AdBrite, please let me know, I need to switch within a few weeks!

March 14, 2009 - 1:53am

Massa said:

You do realize you are talking about going up against one of the worlds great media manipulating machines right? how hard is it going to be for G to get a few wall street journals to print articles with headlines like
Spammers demand privacy!

Good point. But it doesn't mean we should let it go.

I think a 'little here' and a 'little there' isn't going to reach the desired effect. Google will CONTINUE to gain momentum and have everyone drink their cool-aid.

But if those who had the insight 3-5 years ago, spoke up (unitedly/powerfully) then, we wouldn't have to climb such a steep hill to reach our goal. But now is better than never.

Aaron has tremendous respect from almost all SEO's. Massa, you have a good name too. One or both, could have a private invite think-tank. And strategize and leverage your influence to slap Google.

I'm not for destroying Google. I'm for the evil actions to stop.

Google is squeezing the balls of webmasters all throughout the web. This is totally illegal. Yet they are allowed because they are in bed with a lot of people.

It's not going to be easy. But I just wanted to share an idea on maybe 'how' we could stop being 10 flash lights and start being one powerful laser to pierce through the Googlebot.

good link bait but it won't work in terms of protecting our privacy or securing any kind of accountability.

I don't care about link bait. It's not about that. It's about slapping or cutting off the hand that is going up the skirts of the general population.

'It won't work in terms of protecting our privacy' Are you talking about the average user's privacy? Or those that attempt to take a crack at Google?

Based on your overall comment, I think you intended the later but I'll try to answer both.
Protecting avg. user - Well. That's up to a private think-tank of concerned webmasters to pitch. Ways that companies can innovate without going up people's skirts.
Protecting the activists - I think if you and Aaron or others made a private invite and asked people to agree to 100% secrecy (in the planning stages). You'd have a safe activist group.

that's why it needs to be a consumer rights advocacy group. A human rights defender, a governmental agency etc.

This is what I'm advocating for. The idea I'm trying to convey. But instead of just a 'advocacy group', why not empower bloggers to speak up?

We can all throw stones at a house. Or we can build an army and take the house down. I vote for someone to do the latter.

Obama got elected because he mobilized people. He spoke a convincing message. He enabled the army. My intention behind all of this is to say "If your mad at Google and others screwing with our privacy and such. Then mobilize the general population. We have a message people want to hear but have nothing to back things up."

How to you eat an elephant? Not one bite at a time. You rally friends/family/strangers/bums and everyone under the sun, to eat that fat elephant.

Good luck. I'm in, if someone leads it. :)

Side note: I'm not getting follow-up emails. I checked my account (at seobook and gmail) and I have it 'checked' to receive notifications but I'm not getting them. I'm not sure if I'm the only one not getting follow-ups. But a notification email would be nice. :D

March 18, 2009 - 9:45pm

Hi Aaron,

Not sure if you saw my part of the question about adding the opt out plugin functionality into your various products? You didn't seem to give a reply.

Google offer the opt out plugin as an open source project:

March 18, 2009 - 10:52pm

The thing is, that plug-in opts you in, it forces one cookie to try to not force others...but who is to say that if one of those exist for a long time that Google doesn't have a demographic for doomers, conspiracy theorists, and security/privacy products. In time they likely will. Past performance is the best signal of future performance.

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