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Online, You Are What You Browse

Nitin Sumangali |

The collection of personal and behavioral data online is not a new story, especially from where we sit here in Global Insights, but there are always new angles and stories being told that shed more light on this facet of the Information Age.

In the New York Times Magazine, law professor and The New Republic magazine legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen conducts an experiment to try to test the limits of what benefits this data can really offer, with some mixed results. One of the more interesting things involved learning how personal profiles based on online activity are built, and what the benefits and drawbacks of relying on these profiles are.

Rosen created different personae for different browsers. For his Safari, he invented a “Democratic” persona who visited Barack Obama’s campaign website, and then went shopping for a Volvo and flights to Los Angeles. On Firefox, he created a “Republican” persona that went to Mitt Romney’s website, and then browsed for a Cadillac and a flight to Hawaii. Within two days, he began noticing that on a local neighborhood blog, he was seeing different targeted ads based on the personae he’d created.

The targeting itself is nothing new, but Rosen then examined how accurate his new identities were. Using BlueKai, an online data aggregator that uses tracking cookies to build consumer profiles for websites to learn more about their visitors, he found the profiles for his Democratic and Republican identities to be inaccurate. The modeling and targeting systems are constantly evolving and, according to BlueKai, will improve with more browsing, but they still have a limited set of data from which to build their assumptions. Online behavior is a very good way to learn about users and how to serve them with relevant ads, but it is only a partial expression of people’s ideas and preferences, and overreliance on this may create a skewed perception of how people are.

The world of personalized ads is constantly bumping up against the purview of regulators and privacy activists who want more transparency and safeguards around how personal information is stored, tracked and monetized. The Federal Trade Commission issued a report on consumer privacy this year that called for advertisers to make it easier for consumers to opt out of Internet tracking altogether. Companies like Google and Microsoft are embedding “Do Not Track” buttons in their browsers—the New York Times Magazine article notes that Internet Explorer 10 will actually have “Do Not Track” as the default setting —making collecting data from consumers more reliant on informed consent. This will require marketers and others to clearly demonstrate their value to consumers whose information they need, or risk losing a critical source of online revenue and being left behind.

Topics: Big Data, Payments Strategy

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