Friday, November 4, 2011

Ad Targeting From the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy

Third post and I'm biting the hand that feeds me hosts this blog. But then, Google has its hands in a lot of pies so it's bound to get bit. And I'm breaking metaphors and stitching their corpses together like the venerable Dr. Frankenstein (or maybe, I haven't actually read the damn thing it's still on my to-do list).

So ad targeting is a simple concept; use extremely invasive tracking cookies, flash cookies, web beacons and so forth to track the pages people view, figure out what they're interested in from said data, and target the ads served to them based on that information. This simple concept is virtually impossible to execute.

Turns out, knowing what people look at doesn't help you figure out what they want to buy. The concept of bile fascination means that people may very well be viewing information about products they hate. And evaluating what products people view is the easy part; most of ad targeting attempts to derive what people want to buy from what interests they have. I'm a photographer, ergo I must want to buy cameras... well, not quite, since being a photographer means I've already got all the cameras and lenses I need, I take good care of them so I don't have to buy new ones, and since I consider them the tools of my trade rather than fancy toys, I'm as miserly as possible with my equipment budget, making sure to buy exactly what I need and not waste a penny on stuff that I don't.

Some fun facts about me, as obtained from my own personal experience with Google Ads.

-Apparently, I'm bilingual. I briefly looked at one Chinese web page, so now the Adwords Engine assumes I speak Chinese and is targeting Chinese-language ads at me.

-I've failed primary school maths lessons. One ad that appears with astonishing regularity is for a company called Fingerhut, which charges as much as double retail price for their products. Their gimmick is that they offer financing; pay twice as much up front, and in exchange, they'll let you pay interest too. On towels. Seriously, it's not like they're selling cars or something people might not just be able to pay cash for. Only the most innumerate of morons could fall for it, but apparently that's how poorly the Adwords Engine thinks of me.

-I'm an idiot in other ways as well. The Adwords Engine has figured out that I view a lot of websites which cover news and politics and has rightly deduced that I'm interested in politics and current affairs. However, it hasn't quite yet figured out that I might hold actual positions instead of passively consuming what other people say, with nary a thought of my own. Google's "Ad Preference" panel (which can be viewed here) confirms it; my interests as they've assumed them to be include several listings for "news and politics" and several more for "law and government." Armed with this knowledge, they target ads for right-wing lunatics, secure in their presumption that someone interested in "politics" must actually give a shit what those delusional fucksticks have to say.

-My budget for pointless electronics is larger than the GDP of most nations. I have been known to follow tech news and laugh at the overpriced tablet PCs and other passing fads that are going to seem very silly in about ten years. So the Adwords Engine naturally assumes that I must be interested in buying such products, otherwise why would I be reading about them? I get adverts for tablets, smartphones, ebook readers, and computers, even though I'm still certain tablets are a fad that no one will remember or care about in ten years, smartphones are toys whose limited uses fail to counterbalance their massive price tags, ebooks are shit, and a new computer is absolutely beyond my budget at the moment; I'm currently using a computer I found for free in a bin.

-I'm approximately 50 years old. See, in addition to divining my interests from what websites I look at, Google divines my demographic information by cross-referencing my interests with what they've determined "most people" of a given age are interested in. Based on my interests, they've determined that I'm probably around 50, and I'm wondering where all those decades of my life went.

-And last but not least, I really want a Chromebook. I know this is sort of a bad example; Google using its ad space to advertise itself probably skips the Adwords Engine and just foists itself upon everyone, but I'm seeing a truly mind-boggling number of ads for these things. For those who have had the good fortune to avoid such things, the Chromebook is a netbook with most of the features removed that costs as much as a decently-spec'd laptop and runs Google's Chrome operating system. If you find that name suspiciously similar to the Chrome browser, you're not wrong; the operating system contains the Chrome browser and absolutely nothing else. If you want to write or edit documents, you're fucked. (Unless you use Google's rubbish online Google Docs service and put up with the headaches and privacy violations this entails.) If you need to review that spreadsheet, you're fucked. (Unless your boss puts sensitive information on Google Docs where anyone can see it.) If you want to view or edit photos, you're fucked. If you want to keep your private calendar or planner up to date, you're fucked. If you want to listen to music, you're fucked. If you want to install software, you're fucked. If you want to browse the internet, you can get a netbook for half the price and get a real operating system and some offline storage capacity too (hey, maybe you'll need it someday).

Now I'm going to delete my cookies and watch the targeting algorithms give up entirely. My internet connection is sent through a single shared line that I share with other people, so IP address tracking won't help them when the cookies (and flash cookies) are gone.

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