Yahoo! Mail Beta Uses Email Keywords for Ad Targeting

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ADOTAS – Jim Brock over at PrivacyChoice tipped me off to this interesting bit that I missed when Yahoo! announced its revamped webmail last October. Yahoo! Mail Beta promises to faster service while offering greater protection from spam and malware. However, close to the top of the privacy policy, Yahoo! discloses that, when appropriate, it will use keywords derived by scanning email content for display and other targeting on its ad network.

In the company’s own words:

“When you use the new Yahoo! Mail Beta our computer systems detect certain words and phrases (we call them ‘keywords’) within your messages. This might result in ads being shown to you in Mail for products and services that are related to those keywords. In addition, these keywords may contribute to the interest categories we assign to your browser for interest-based ads that we show throughout the Yahoo! Ad Network. No additional ads are shown to you, just more relevant ads.”

It’s no surprise that Yahoo!, just like Gmail and AOL mail, scans email content to deliver “relevant” advertising while in the mail client, but Google and AOL do not use data gleaned from email scans for other targeting across their networks. The privacy policy for regular old Yahoo mail reads: “Yahoo!’s practice is not to use the content of messages stored in your Yahoo! Mail account for marketing purposes.” Yahoo! users will have the option of sticking with “Yahoo Mail Classic” if they choose.

This is a pretty bold change, one that may have crossed the public’s privacy threshold — it must be noted that opting out is quite easy. According to Yahoo!’s privacy policy, information is shared with “trusted partners” but not with advertisers themselves; Yahoo! makes it clear that its partners have no rights to share the information.

I’m torn over the privacy implications. I understand Yahoo! is offering a valuable service with its mail product and has every right to claim this data (users have every right to use a different email service that does not use email data for ad targeting, or simply opt out). Unlike Google, Yahoo is a portal — it’s almost a social network, except content-driven. Thinking about it that way, however, can you imagine the reaction if Facebook attempted to scan messages for targeting keywords?

In Shelly Palmer’s “Zen in the Art of Digital Privacy” (which is a great call to personal responsibility for social Internet users), he comments, “[Y]ou can’t be ‘a little pregnant’ or ‘a little dead.’ Information simply can’t be, ‘a little private.’” But I’ll argue that email can be a little private, certainly not as private as its physical counterpart. Email could be called the last bastion of Internet privacy, and Yahoo! is threatening to knock it down with Yahoo! Mail Beta. I personally do not want advertising targeted to me based on my email (I’ve come to tolerate in-client ads, considering it a tradeoff for such a useful service), but I won’t speak for all Internet users.

Coincidentally, I was reading Palmer’s “Zen” article via his email newsletter, and Google served an ad above it for a “Free Spirituality Webinar.” I’ve noted many times that email ads based on content scanning are more laugh-worthy than creepy. So how good is Yahoo!’s scanning? How well can the natural language engine understand interests and categorize them? Search cues show intent, but email cues are far harder to analyze.

In other words, is such data useful enough to justify the online privacy crapstorm that’s about to rain on Yahoo?

6 COMMENTS

  1. It atcually worked pretty good for me(in my case at least). I sent an email to my wife about a Las vegas trip and I had mentioned Mandalay Bay and the new Aria hotel. The next day (when I was on some other Yahoo properties) I received banner ads for discounts for both Mandalay Bay and Aria.

    I clicked on the Aria banner and ended up booking a couple nights.

    I actually appreciated the targeting because it meant less research work for me and I got a better deal.

  2. Are we sure that those of us who don’t want to use the “new” Yahoo Mail will still be able to continue using Yahoo Mail Classic? I think they’re planning to force “Classic” users to use the new Yahoo Mail by switching “Classic” off….which, from my perspective, would be a huge shame.

  3. Yohoo’s new email is just a bridge too far and for me has crossed the privacy boundary, I will definitely switch to another email service if they force to switch from classic to the new Mail Beta. I’m already testing gmail as an alternative after being a yahoo user for more then 10 years.

  4. @egravenb: But gmail already does exactly what Yahoo is rolling out now!

    At least Yahoo appears to have some kind of opt out (turn of behavioural advertising and stay with Classic Mail).

  5. Interesting thing happened to me. I couldn’t get into my email
    mail.yahoo.com
    Requested new password, still couldn’t get in. (Rinse, repeat at least twice, same result.)
    Finally I come across a solution:
    Login using the full-version of Yahoo Messenger. Enter the mail that way. Switch to the upgraded mail.
    Now you can get in.
    Took me over a week to find this solution, so now I am spreading the word.
    (You’d think Yahoo could put this in their help links.)

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