In my post on Monday, I discussed the privacy concerns that have been raised in the wake of a court order, requiring Google to provide Viacom with 12TB of data that includes information on the viewing habits of individual YouTube users.

The YouTube case ties in with a broad subject that industry, privacy advocates and lawmakers have been grappling with.

That is, what privacy rights should consumers have in an age, when the technologies designed to track their online activities and to target them with advertising keep getting more invasive and advanced?

The US Senate’s Commerce Committee will be holding a hearing on behavioral targeting today, demonstrating that these questions are increasingly attracting the attention of government.

A recent study conducted by research firm TNS Global at the behest of TRUSTe and issued by eMarketer found that:

39.4% of survey participants are not comfortable with advertisers using their browsing history to serve up relevant ads, even if personal identifiable information cannot be tied to their name“.

But I was less intrigued with the figure demonstrating that consumers are not keen on behavioral targeting than I was with the figure showing just how effective consumers say such targeting is.

As reported by

“The TrustE numbers cited by eMarketer said that only 12.6 percent of respondents said that more than a quarter of the targeted ads they were delivered were relevant. Ouch.”

Ouch is correct.

After billions upon billions of dollars have been invested in the technologies that are supposed to be helping digital marketers deliver more relevant advertising to users, the fact that these technologies are apparently still failing to do so the vast majority of the time calls into question whether such investments can ever bear fruit.

Personally, I’m skeptical about behavioral targeting for the simple reason that I think the general logic behind it is flawed.

Just because my demographic profile, interests and browsing habits are known does not mean that I can be targeted effectively.

There are three primary reasons:

  • While this data allows a digital marketer to make assumptions about the types of advertisements that may interest me, those assumptions arederived indirectly and are naturally going to be quite general. They will likely fail to be nuanced enough to be as accurate as the advertiser hopes.
  • I, like many other internet users, may be adept at ignoring even the most appropriately targeted advertisements because at the time they are displayed to me, I am not receptive to them – even if they are fairly well-targeted.
  • The advertising inventory a digital marketer has available may not be well-aligned with the advertising I’m going to respond to. It’s worth noting that a relatively small number of big-budget advertisers spend huge amounts of money on CPM advertising. What these advertisers are trying to sell me is often of very little interest even if the digital marketer thinks I would have an interest.

At the end of the day, I think it’s worth contrasting the complexities of behavioral targeting with the simplicity of search advertising.

In the former, large amounts of data are collected and sophisticated algorithms must be applied to that data in an effort to determine what advertising the user likely “wants” to see – at the expense of privacy.

In the latter, the user essentially reveals what advertising will likely be of interest through the search terms used – with no “invasion of privacy” reasonably required.

Additionally, in the former, intent is not always present while in the latter, it quite often is.

Obviously, while search advertising is a billion-dollar market, it’s relatively limited in scope when one considers all of the other “places” online where advertising is displayed.

Yet I think a valid argument could be made that search advertising is online advertising’s “

killer app

” despite the fact that behavioral targeting is considered by some to be the “

holy grail


That is, no matter how hard we try to improve behavioral targeting technologies, search advertising is generally the most ideal online advertising model that can be implemented.

In search advertising, the user is actively searching for something and based on the search terms, relevant advertising may be displayed. Additionally, intent does not need to be “created” because it likely already exists.

In other words, search advertising currently makes the most of the medium.

This is not to say that other models will fall by the wayside or that there isn’t room for improvement and innovation.

But when it comes to enabling a wide range of advertisers – from individuals to Fortune 500 corporations – to effectively and efficiently advertise their products and services to consumers online, I think the search advertising model is hard to beat – regardless of the flaws in the popular CPC system.

Unfortunately, the increasingly invasive lengths to which companies are willing to go in an effort to make behavioral targeting work reflects the fact that these companies don’t recognize that throwing more technology and data at the problem isn’t likely to work.

As they say: “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.