December 27th, 2017

Privacy and Online Ads

Without ads monetizing the content of public computer networks, a service that is now low cost would be much more expensive. I’m willing to accept that. But there is something sinister in the online ad business.

Today, “monetize” usually means to change something that is popular in the digital world into a money-maker for someone. Online ads monetize most of what we think of as the internet. Google makes most of their money from online ads as does Facebook. Amazon makes their money from selling things, but their online ads are a crucial part of their business plan.

The ad business has changed

Remember “banner ads”? A seller like Rolex will be glad to pay a premium for a banner ad on a site like the New Yorker that has wide circulation and a good reputation among people with money to spend on luxury watches.

But the banner ad is an endangered species from the age of paper advertising. They are based on high-end, intelligent marketing that made many careers in the 20th Century. But no longer.

21st Century digital advertisers have facts. Traditional marketers knew that New Yorker readers were affluent and well-educated, but they were short on specifics on who was buying and why. Digital marketers today can tell you who sees an ad, how often viewers click on an ad, and, for digital sales, how often they spend money. And they know the age, location, income bracket, and browsing habits of most potential customers. They can target ads to the most likely customers and know exactly how the ads perform.

How do online ads work?

Traditionally, a big city daily newspaper could charge more for their ads than a community weekly because a seller could expect more people to see an ad in the big city daily and act on the ad. Sellers measure the effectiveness of ads by “return on investment” (ROI). If a seller invests $50 in an ad in a community fish wrapper and sees a $100 increase in sales, they get a 200% return. ($100 return/$50 investment = 200%. Sometimes a low-cost ad has better ROI, usually not.

Some businesses occasionally use advertising to improve their image or convey information, but the everyday advertising goal is ROI, using ads to make more sales. The lure of digital advertising is that digital advertising can be fine-tuned to increase ROI by reducing costs and increasing returns.

Digital advertisers can count how many times the ad was seen (impressions) and was followed (clicks). If the transaction is digital, they can count the number of times the ad resulted in a sale. Traditional paper advertising only knows how many copies of the ad were circulated, not how often the ad was seen and only generalities about readers.

The network collects information on buyers that can be used to target advertising toward people likely to buy. For example, people who don’t have cars are unlikely to buy car polish. Therefore, car polish sellers can improve their advertising ROI by directing their ads to car owners and ignoring people without cars.

Who are the players in the online ad biz?

  • Customers. That’s you.
  • The ad publishers. Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. Ad publishers put the ads in front of potential customers.
  • Ad networks and exchanges. The folks in the background who match likely buyers to sellers and maximize the vigorish. When you open a web page with slots for ad, the slots are often auctioned off highest bidder in milliseconds. The bidders use information about you, to decide how much to bid. You may be familiar with some of these players like “DoubleClick” whose addresses flash by as you enter a site.
  • Ad agencies. Those waggish artists who think up cunning ads for the advertisers. These companies usually have bland names like “WPP Group.”
  • Data brokers. The vacuum cleaners that suck up data and sort it into a commodity they can sell to advertisers, ad agencies, networks, and exchanges. These are companies like Blue Kai or Live Ramp, whom you may not have heard of.

Except for customers, the players are often combined. There are one-stop shops that combine all the functions and boutiques that specialize in a narrow aspect of the process.

The network never forgets

The data collected on buying habits has grown rapidly in the last few years. If you do something on the network, someone, somewhere, has taken a note. The more we use computer networks, the more data is amassed on us. “Big data” arose to process the mountains of accumulated data.

Today, electronic payment is common, and many customers get discounts by identifying themselves when they purchase. Consequently, grocery store managers may know more about your food buying habits than you do. They can use that information to offer the items you want, but they also use it to find and persuade you to buy more profitable items. They can appeal to habits you may not even know you have. Online sales are even more effective at collecting data on customers.

Although you may not enjoy being manipulated in this way, most people still choose to use payment methods that identify themselves and trade their phone number at the point-of-sale for reduced prices. A lot of people feel that the convenience of electronic payment and a reduced price are reasonable tradeoff for subjecting themselves to manipulation by their sellers.

Why do online ads make me feel uneasy?

Using network habits to target ads is occasionally annoying. My grandfather died of colon cancer after a colostomy fifty years ago. Recently I wondered how those ugly colostomy bags had changed. I searched online. What a mistake! I still occasionally get an ad for disposable bags in cheery prints.

Creepy, yes, but not threatening. I, thank Heavens, am not remotely likely to purchase a colostomy bag according to my gastroenterologist. The sellers have made a mistake, but it only costs them a few cents and they certainly get a worthwhile ROI on their ads, winning the numbers game. And I get annoying ads. Nothing to lose sleep over.

Misuse of personal profiles

But let’s change the story some. Suppose you looked up alcoholism treatment out of curiosity. And the user of your profile was not an alcoholism treatment center selling their services, but an investigative agency running a check for a potential employer to whom you sent an application. Maybe the job was important to you and you were well-qualified, but your application was tossed on the first round because you were flagged as an alcoholic.

Do you see how the situation changed? A seller looking at ROI doesn’t grudge a fried fig for a few ads sent to the wrong place. A loss of a few cents to misdirected ads is nothing compared to all those colostomy bag sales. But you lost a job that you may have wanted, even needed, badly. And the potential employer lost a brilliant prospect. This happens when a personal profile is used in a scenario where much harm can result from inferences that are perfectly valid in other circumstances.

The danger is that the profiles will applied wrongly when they are perfectly valid and useful in most circumstances. That is sinister.

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