Google’s efforts to soft-sell behavioral targeting to consumers took a new turn today with the launch of its “Why These Ads” initiative, which permits consumers to find out how their search behaviors influence the content of the ads that they’re shown and indicate tracing preferences. The step is ingenious: Google can be upfront about its targeting while also collecting even more information volunteered by people. Consumers using the “Ad Preferences Manager” tool will be able to see that if they search for a hotel in New York City, they will most likely see a host of display ads for New York Hotels in the sidebar. The tool also allows consumers to chose to block certain ad providers or opt-out of personalized advertising altogether.
Google’s new protocol is significant on several fronts. First, Google is the undisputed leader in search, and it has used this to secure its position in the ad ecosystem as the definer of the game. Although it hasn’t yet been able to capture its search data and transform it seamlessly into a behavioral and psychographic map of the world on the scale of Facebook, it certainly could.
The reason Google hasn’t been able to do that is that for most people Google is still simply a tool for finding products, services and content. It’s not a responsive reservoir of digital identities, a la Facebook. If Google can get people actually talking to it, delineating tracking preferences and ad genre interests, it can leapfrog past every third-party data provider in the industry.Google could potentially develop a pool of the ad preferences of millions of consumers and then integrate that data into its ad ecosystem as the ultimate competition killer. Facebook may hold the social profiles of most of the Western World, but it doesn’t have search, and can’t have search on the scale of Google unless it can develop a finely-tuned filter for social search that somehow makes search through another engine incredibly relevant and rewarding.
The problem, however, is that most people don’t really care that they’re being tracked. Despite the brouhaha over the WSJ series “What They Know”, consumers haven’t opted-out of tracking in statistically significant numbers. So those who actually take the time to explore the targeting info on the Google Ad Preferences toolbox will still be an small minority of the consumers that Google needs to capture in order to build a game-changing pool of consumer preferences. That’s where social may come in for Google as a secret weapon. If it can get consumers to voluntarily submit ad preferences in exchange for enhanced social search, then it can redefine its status and become the ad operating system that Facebook is making steady strides towards becoming.