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Scary or Not? More Online Ads Are Targeting User Behavior

Scary or Not? More Online Ads Are Targeting User Behavior

Mark Davis/The Kansas City Star

Don’t like the ads you see online? Maybe you’re to blame.

Increasingly, Web sites are showing you advertisements based on your online behavior, a practice dubbed behavioral targeting.

To do this, Web sites and online ad networks rely on technology that remembers the topics you have searched, the ads you’ve clicked on, the online articles you’ve read and even the products you started to buy online but did not.

Armed with such information, they promise to deliver an advertiser’s online spots only to the thousands of site visitors who have an interest in whatever is for sale. Other online ads are scheduled to appear to any site visitor in a scattershot approach.

Behavioral targeting – practiced at,, this newspaper’s and many other sites – particularly promises to boost revenues for news and other free-content sites.

“You get ads instead of paying subscription fees for services,” said Chuck Curran, the executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative in Washington, D.C. “You get access to blogs and articles and online services because of the ads that are available.”

At the same time, behavioral targeting has alarmed privacy advocates.

Some want legal limits to online tracking even when it isn’t intended to include or to be paired with personally identifiable information such as names, addresses and credit card numbers collected off-line.

“There are all these companies – dozens of them – building these files on everyone,” said Peter Eckersley, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in California. “We’re just giving them, without realizing it, all this quite personal information about us.”

Earlier this month, a group of leading Internet publishers and digital marketing services launched an online campaign to educate consumers about how they are tracked and targeted for pitches on the Web. The Interactive Advertising Bureau unveiled its “Privacy Matters” Web site. The site explains how Internet marketers track where people go and what they do online and then mine that data to serve up targeted ads.

Online advertising interests counter that they have no financial incentive to collect or misuse personal information and have set industry guidelines so that their systems don’t do that.

The conflicting interests have set up a virtual tug-of-war between efforts to deliver more relevant advertising and concerns that personal information may be misused.

A match game

The concept of targeted advertising is familiar to anyone who finds Winchester ads in a hunting magazine or makeup ads in Glamour. Web sites with similarly focused themes also can deliver targeted audiences to advertisers.

Behavioral targeting allows Web sites with a broad online audience to do the same thing. The trick comes in deciding which interests each online visitor has.

One way is to simply ask.

Some sites ask viewers to create a profile that includes information such as gender and hobbies. List “travel” and expect to see travel-related ads if the site uses targeted advertising.

Some companies use retargeting ad techniques, said Nicole Conrick, managing director of media services at VML, a marketing and ad agency in Kansas City.

For example, try visiting the Web site of Internet phone service provider Vonage.

“I guarantee you in the next couple of days you’re going to see Vonage ads everywhere you go,” Conrick said.

That is because when you visited its site, Vonage “dropped a cookie on you,” she explained.