What’s the Fuss Over Yahoo! Targeting Ads With Email Data?

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ADOTAS – I have been rather surprised at the discussion of whether Yahoo!’s use of email keywords for ad targeting crosses a line. Gmail has been using your email content for targeting since it first entered beta. While this is an incremental step forward, it is a step that was inevitable.

At the time Gmail started the same questions were raised: Was this an invasion of privacy and would users accept it? But let’s not forget, that was seven years ago. An enormous amount has changed in the intervening years and the Internet is an entirely different place now.

In March 2004, blogging had only just become mainstream, MySpace was a mere 2-months-old, Facebook was accessible at just five colleges and Twitter would not appear for another two years. In 2004 most Internet users did not have public profiles and were not sharing their personal information widely. The online advertising networks were barely collecting anonymous profiles for most users compared to the detailed, personal profiles they hold today.

What we’ve learned over the past seven years is that users will exchange privacy for convenience and that people’s attitudes to privacy can change rapidly. At this point in time I am quite surprised that anyone would do more than raise an eyebrow at the idea that Yahoo! would use the content of a page viewed to customize the advertising displayed to a user even if the content is a personal email.

Despite the progression in attitudes towards privacy I think there are still many ways to get this wrong. If the advertisements are too direct around emails that discuss personal matters, think a stream of condom advertisements after reading an email about a possible unexpected pregnancy; or if the advertisements cause brand conflicts, think streams of BMW advertisements after discussing one’s love of classic Ford Mustangs with a friend.

The reality though is that we’ve not seen a backlash about targeting advertising in the email interface based on the content and I do not expect to see one when that same data is used beyond the email.

In a nutshell, my take is that Yahoo! could get this wrong and face a backlash, but this isn’t 2004 and the line they just crossed was passed so long ago that most people have forgotten it even happened.

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