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Google plugs your surf history into ad money machine

Wades into interest-based ads behavioral targeting

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Google has unleashed a new behavioral ad targeting scheme onto YouTube and partner sites in its AdSense advertising network - though it has carefully avoided the term behavioral ad targeting. Google prefers "interest-based advertising."

Whatever you call it, YouTube and AdSense sites are now showing ads to websurfers based on the (many) pages they've perused in the past. "We think we can make online advertising even more relevant and useful by using additional information about the websites people visit," Google VP Susan Wojcicki wrote this morning in a blog post entitled "Making ads more interesting."

"Today, we are launching 'interest-based' advertising as a beta test on our partner sites and on YouTube. These ads will associate categories of interest - say sports, gardening, cars, pets - with your browser, based on the types of sites you visit and the pages you view. We may then use those interest categories to show you more relevant text and display ads."

Google refers to the new system as a beta. But it calls everything a beta.

The new system does not tailor ads on Google's search engine. At least, not yet. Though you have to wonder whether Google is already using browser history to place search ads. "To date, we have shown ads based mainly on what your interests are at a specific moment," the company says in today's blog post. Note the word "mainly."

What Google does not say in its blog post is that the new system is designed to juice its money machine. Behavioral ad targeting is the reason Google toys with the definition of anonymization when anonymizing your IP address.

While pitching its new ad-targeting methods as a godsend for websurfers everywhere, Google does acknowledge that the system has a certain appeal to advertisers intent on making money from websurfers. And it realizes that such a program raises questions over user choice and privacy.

In an effort to answer these questions, Google is offering something called an Ad Preferences Manager, where you view and edit the ad categories Google has placed you in based on your past behavior. If you like, you can even tell Google to serve you ads in additional categories.

You can also opt-out of the program. But this is a cookie-based opt-out, which means you'll have to opt-out on every machine and every browser you use. It also means that if you're someone who regularly clears your cookies for privacy reasons, you'll opt yourself back in.

Google does offer a browser plug-in that maintains your opt-out even when cookies are cleared, but it's only available for Firefox and IE. So, you're out of luck if you're running Safari or Opera - or Google's own Chrome.

To Google's credit, its privacy controls go beyond what you'll find on similar ad-targeting systems recently introduced by Yahoo!, AOL, and others. But the end result is that most people will be targeted without realizing they've been targeted.

"Getting to see the categories that you're profiled on and the fact that you get to edit is a positive step," says Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a watchdog that has closely eyed the rise of behavioral ad targeting. "But we have been supportive of the idea that if you're going to give an opt-out, it shouldn't be a cookie, and it should be something that's much easier to find and use...If you're concerned about privacy, you're told to delete your cookie. There has to be a better option."

Google says it has achieved "transparency" by tagging ads with labels that link to detailed information about its behavioral targeting. But Schwartz argues that transparency is in the eye of the beholder. "Putting in a link that says 'Ads by Google' is confusing to a lot of people. It looks like something you'd click on to find out how you'd advertise - not how you're being advertised to."

Plus, Schwartz says, if you opt-out of Google, you're still opted-into behavioral targeting programs from all sorts of other online ad mavens. The Center for Democracy and Technology has called on Google and others to create an industry-wide database that would allow anyone to instantly opt-out of all interest-based advertising. Er, behavioral ad targeting. ®

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