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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Google's Creepy Advertising Technology

This post has nothing to do with Ray or religion--we all need a break from that, right?--but I wanted some feedack on something...

If you use Google Mail through the online interface (rather than downloading it into Outlook), you have probably noticed the ads and the way they sometimes match up with the content of your messages. What's happening here is that Google has automated search software that--

1) Rapidly scans the text of all your email messages
2) Searches the terms and compares them to a list of advertisements that companies have bought from them.
3) Finds a crude match...for instance, if you have the word "car" in an email, the search software might find an ad for used car or car repairs.
4) Publishes the ad based on the target word in your email message

I was always vaguely uneasy about it, but two experiences recently creeped me out and angered me. I describe these two cases below, and would like your thoughts on them.
  • A friend of mine sent me a message about a mutual friend of ours who was recently and very suddenly diagnosed with a rare and serious form of cancer. Google displayed an ad in which that person's name was tied to an ad. I won't use his real name, but it would be as if his name were Treo and an ad for Sony’s Treo popped up.
  • The automated search went through a message I had from the Obama mailing list and then it put up ads for other left-of-center political groups, publications, etc.

Sure, this technology is really convenient, but isn’t it also creepy? These weird, invasive dips into my private life—my relationships with friends and my political affiliations—are unsettling, even if no human ever accesses them. I’m going to read up on the technical details about how this advertising works. Maybe I’ll come away with a better feeling about it, but if advertising needs to create positive feelings about a product, Google ads are driving me away from products I see there.


  1. I've noticed this, but I haven't given it much thought. There ia a 1984/Big Brother kind of vibe though, isn't there? However, I like it when I check my SPAM folder and get a new SPAM recipe.

  2. It's all about making $$.

    Google is a pretty good company, and it is extremely unlikely that any of your personal information is actually captured -- even if it were, the sheer volume of data would be impossible to parse even if Orwellian surveillance were the goal.

    You're right about the mechanism; keywords are located in the message text -- a process which can occur before the message makes it to your "inbox" -- and "appropriate" targeted ads are tagged. It's simple, and it's effectively anonymous, but it's also (obviously) a little unnerving.

    It's just one of many reasons why I don't offer true personally identifiable information to teh intarwebs, and why I use my own mail server rather than anyone else's. If you've ever worked in a Tech Support capacity, you know already how stupid users are, and that spam, phishing attacks, viruses, malware/grayware/spyware, and identity theft are almost always the fault of the user in question. The less you expose yourself to privacy issues, the less concern you need have.

    I fucking hate end users.


  3. stan is spontaneously channelling the spirit of BOFH

  4. stan is spontaneously channelling the spirit of BOFH


    Obviously, the problem is due to a nullified, generic topology stackdump.

    (We really did use this BOFH-style generator to generate excuses...)


  5. I use the BetterGmail Firefox extension, so I don't see any ads.

  6. Just a note, the treo is by Palm, not Sony.

  7. One of the more memorable moments relating to this technology occurred when I was browsing Urban Dictionary, and checked out definitions for "sheeple". Fittingly, there was a huge Church of Scientology ad pasted in the middle of the page.

  8. henwli-

    'Sheeple'/scientology comment - that's funny!

    To an extent (non-disparagingly), couldn't 'Kiwis' be considered 'sheeple' too?


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