Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Draining the Heart of the Internet: Is targeted marketing destroying the surfing experience?

Izzy Woods

The saying “just because you're paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” can be directly applied to Internet marketing these days. Targeted ads, often courtesy of Google AdWords and AdSense, appear on just about every page we visit online. Type an email to your mother and mention the carrots you ate the night before, and suddenly every sidebar and header ad is about carrots, cooking, or where to find cooked carrots. Casually type a comment about babies while responding to a friend’s Facebook comment, and almost instantly your entire Internet experience will involve baby-centric banner advertisements and notices. While Adwords and search engine marketing techniques have exponentially increased the efficiency of marketing and the reach of products and brands, and while most consumers have become accustomed to this rapid response to the minutiae in our heads, the practice is still mildly unsettling.

Back in the day

It all began with pay-per-click advertising in the late 90s. The ability of advertisers to place their ads where a potential customer could easily select the option to visit their site or product proved to be quite successful for all involved. In the late 90s, the average consumer was still wildly enamoured with the very fact that “surfing” the net, moving easily from place to place, was an option, so having a pay-per-click ad or two appear seemed novel. The fact that the ad was targeted was interesting as opposed to annoying. Google Adwords, launched in 2000, was the harbinger of developments to come. The Adwords program is now an integral part of our online experience. In a nutshell, the service, and others like it, allows advertisers to choose a series of keywords that will activate ads to appear in sidebars, banners, and pop-ups. The advertiser pays a specified amount per click by a potential consumer. The more money the advertiser is willing to bid per click, combined with the amount of traffic their site receives and the quality of the site itself, determines how prominently the ad is displayed on the page. Most often, it is Google Adwords that causes that one line about carrots to equal banner ads about vegetables for the next hour, or the appearance of advertisements about Gerber and Pampers that dot the electronic landscape once you leave Facebook.

This instant advertising gratification is further compounded by the use of more basic search engine marketing techniques, like keyword analysis, link and page popularity, back-end techniques like image tagging, contextual advertising, and paid inclusion in website directories, to name just a few. The result is that surfing the Internet now means navigating a series of advertisements, in addition to searching for the information you actually need. In the marketing community’s quest to generate more traffic and increase visibility, advertising has become almost as prevalent as general information on the web, and often the two are conflated in tricky ways that make it difficult to separate fact from a possibly manufactured version of the truth.

The real story

This is where “conspiracy theories” come into play. With targeted advertising and, recently, with the development of targeted links to content as well, our Internet experience is becoming more and more confined to those mentions of carrots and babies. The true “surfing” experience is no more. There was a time when it was possible to make cognitive leaps on the Internet that were solely based on where our brains chose to go, as opposed to where an advertiser nudged us to go. Those days seem long gone now. Consumer groups have been grumbling since the advent of paid search advertising. They point to the way advertising is presented on the Internet, and how some ads are presented in such a way that the very fact that they are advertisements is hidden. Pay-per-click advertising also opened up a whole new level of online trademark infringement, as companies raced to gain possession of common or popular terms, so that their ads would appear more prominently. In fact, in 2011, Google began preventing Adwords clients from buying up other links in order to increase their ranking. The end result is that the World Wide Web is becoming increasingly limited to only what exists in the user’s immediate world. Half the fun of going online used to be stumbling across a website or finding a new band from overseas. Now, the use of targeted technologies is drastically limiting our experience and, consequently, it is also limiting the possibility of connection or discussion with others that used to be the heart of the Internet.

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