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Why Googles behavioural targeting should creep you out

Written by David Harry   
Monday, 28 September 2009 13:46


A blueprint for a truly social search engine

Not to be left out of the rise of social mayhem, the fine folks at the ‘plex are more active in the social spheres than many would suspect – at least not at first glance. In truth there is evidence of deep hooks and commitment that might even be going a bit too far… does the social stand for social engineering?

Last time out we looked at some of the potential and problems for Google and the quest for social signals. This time out it’s a glimpse at Google’s world of social networking, behavioral targeting and the data streams that they may be, or more likely already are, pursuing.

Now personalization and social search are great and there is certainly a future for them. What’s not so sure is how they are going to get there. While some of the technology makes me dazzle, there are underlying aspect that can make one nervous as well… As a search geek is a love/scare kinda dealy..

First let’s take a peek at some elements in play…..

Google Account and profile

Google Account

One of the cornerstones of the Google Empire is your G account, (and profile) which are tied into almost ALL of the other offerings on this list. If one were to mine various elements, there is more than enough to play with, (more recently, can U say SideWiki + FriendConnect?... if they ever get it right).

Google Open Social


Google Open Social

Walking hand in hand with the accounts are the various implementations of GOS. As more developers bandwagon along this trail, greater data will be tied into many future social and search activities… (we’ll get back to social profiling shortly)

iGoogle personalized Homepage

iGoogle personalized home page

While there are many that discount it, the iGoogle home page has been one of the faster growing services in the Google toolbelt, (and one they’ve been leaning on). The myriad of gadgets offer a variety of both implicit and explicit user feedback. We’ve recently seen Gtalk incorporated into the pages as well…And yes, they have social gadgets too!

Google Reader

Google reader additions

We’ve recently also seen some more social aspects being added to Google Reader including deeper sharing (and friend connection) options as well as limited voting (explicit feedback) via the ‘Like’ feature (not so far from FriendFeed’s approach). This enables profiling of user types as well as secondary explicit feedback possibilities. An ongoing social evolution.

Google Search Wiki

Search Wiki

Another obvious step could be using the data from like minded users in Google’s search Wiki…. This would be of particular interest for any implementation of a social search engine when cross referenced with your contacts and other social connections. How popular this feature is remains in doubt, but it shows the desire for explicit feedback.

Google Side Wiki


Side Wiki

the latest addition to the data kingdom and a semi-social one at that. Who knows, maybe they’re starting to get a feel for getting implicit AND explicit data. The latter generally being harder to get with us lazy users. Or will it go a bit stale like it’s earlier cousin Search Wiki? Only time will tell…


And why stop there? Seriously... it can be rather an endless chain (and we're not even getting into Gmail, Google Docs, Desktop etc..)

Google Talk

Google Talk

This one is also another fairly easy place for them to derive user profiling of ‘friends’ and other contacts in your network. Cross referenced with other applications (such as Reader, FriendConnect) they can likely get tighter user categorization profiling.

Android Mobile platform


Once more we have a few opportunities for them to better understand our networks and interests. Think of all the usual suspects (Gmail, Search) and add another layer of contacts to a potential social profiling program.

Google Chrome OS

Google Chrome OS

Once more, should there be any reasonable saturation in market share this would avail Google a wealth of data points from actual search and social as well as application focus elements (see here for more on application focus). Any operating system is going to be fully loaded with Google applications and services.. and the potetial to even more data...


Getting the idea here?? If we look beyond these we can even consider data from the Chrome browser, Google Maps/Earth (Latitude in Google Maps) and even Google Wave. The list is extensive.... and goes on and on.

Next Stop… Social Profiling

Let's pull up here for a moment shall we? We looked at it last time… but it is damned relevant if in desire alone (to collect such data); Google Social Profiling.

(As you well know by now) the system seeks out social connections in order to better deliver targeted ads to social network users. It also has the capacity to be a recommendation engine (of content or other users) as well. We've talked about it many times here, so I'll leave it at that.

One of the more interesting aspects is the Social Graph API. It is certainly a relevant piece - learn more;

The personalized search connections

All of this can also be helped by developing better personalization as well. There are traditionally problems finding quality signals in personalized environments due to the fact that implicit user feedback is often noisy and explicit makes users jump through too many hoops. People tend to not want to interact with their search results, as noted with many social search voting approaches that have met with less than stellar adoption (can you say; Search Wiki?).

If we look at the many signals they are starting to mine from not only our interactions, but our social ‘friends’ and (those deemed) like minded individuals, there could be stronger signals available. Imagine if you will what types of signals can be generated from this wealth of social data to provide a tighter personalization of search. Let us not forget that Google has had an interest in Personalized PageRank since ’03 (be sure to READ that last link…important stuff)

Tin foil and imagination

Another angle worth noting is from everyone’s favourite Google Tin Foil accessory purveyor; Michael Grey. One does have to wonder how all of this information and profiling might affect those in the marketplace. While from the official side of things Google states they are trying to make (your online) life better for you… could this mass of data be used against you? Does social profiling give them more weapons to deal with spammers and others deemed unworthy? It all seems to be a tough balancing act.

And let’s take it a bit further… much like past musing with behavioural targeting that they’re ever-so-interested in we must ask ourselves; where is the line between social/behavioural targeting and modification?

If we implicitly trust a company to ‘give us what we want’, will we be able to see when they are feeding us ‘what they want’ or is in their (and their advertisers) best interest not ours? These are but a few of the questions yet to be answered (or even asked) as we move towards a brave new world of behavioural targeting and personalization with a social layer.

In the article, ‘Is all relevance Googly relevance’, Anil Dash makes a great observation;

“I find this to be incredibly significant.  Google essentially says that Relevance will no longer be defined as “what the user wants“, but as “what we think might change the user’s mind, so as to get them to want something other than what they specifically asked for“.  If the user types (for example) for [Reebok] and an Adidas ad appears because Google has allowed Adidas to keyword-target [Reebok] queries, then the user may indeed click (users do sometimes click on results that are not relevant.)  There will be cash flow.  But under no stretch of imagination would I call the Adidas ad Relevant to what the user actually asked for.”

As if our computers weren't good enough?

Now let’s hold up for a moment – Google is merely the example. It is the one to write about to get folks attention. In reality Microsoft has a ton of interest in behavioural targeting as does Yahoo! too ( and marketing firms around the globe). We could as easily profile them (as they have us) to show some areas of interest, if not concern.

What really drove me were other vertical systems they are also putting in place. Microsoft and Google are fighting it out for data collection and behavioural targeting from television set top boxes… (Google and MS have patents actually). Essentially they want to take the behavioural targeting to new aspects of our lives and soon we’ll be locked in from phone to computer to TV. Something we shall also look at soon….

For now watch Eric Schmidt in this video. The clip will start at the relevant stuff; 10:53 to 11:40 – He talks about set top box ad targeting.

Behavioural targeting is a small step away from behavioural modification

Where is the line? At what point does it begin have an adverse affect on our very evolution as people? Not sure, but it does eat at me sometimes… We haven’t even touched mobile (and geo) related avenues. I am often fascinated while at the same time often strangely concerned about what it all implies to our future (and my children after me).

How social do you want your search engine to be?


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