A coworker is planning a trip to London with a friend, and earlier this week she received an e-mail about the travel arrangements from her friend. This e-mail was obviously chock full of travel lingo. A few days later when she logged in to check her e-mail, she noticed a banner ad from a travel website about booking a vacation to London next to her inbox. She wondered to herself, is this pure coincidence or is a greater power at play?
Many people have shared a similar experience--their email client seems to 'know' their interests and present advertising content based on these interests. Are you an avid photographer? See ads about offers on cameras from a local photography store. Passionate about skiing? Perhaps an ad for a ski mountain in Vermont appears next to your inbox. E-mail clients such as Gmail, Yahoo and Aol employ content scanning procedures to provide users with more targeted advertising. They use the same content scanning technology that analyzes emails and filters for spam and viruses to identify trends in email content and messaging that provide insight into users' hobbies and interests. They utilize this information to display more relevant and individualized advertising for users. On the Yahoo! Mail Beta FAQ page, Yahoo explains:
"This technology looks for patterns, keywords and files in mail content. In order to bring you the new Yahoo! Mail Beta, Yahoo!’s computer systems will scan messages to identify key objects in messages such as words, subjects, people, and links to personalize your experience. This will result in both product enhancements as well as more relevant advertising in addition to a safer, less cluttered Mail experience."
While Yahoo and Gmail positively frame this feature, many condemn the companies for breaching users' security and violating their privacy, some even calling them evil (I couldn't seem to find much information about targeted advertising in Aol's email client, possibly due to a pending lawsuit concerning this feature). What many users do not know, Yahoo, Google and Aol track users' behavior across all their platforms that users access. For example, Google keeps tabs on users' digital behavior on search, calendar, YouTube, and all other Google platforms (including sites that utilize its AdSense program if the user is still logged in) to gain more insight into their interests and provide targeted advertising both within Gmail and on those sites in the Adsense program. So my friend may not only see display advertising about traveling to London in her email client, but also on all sites/platforms contained in the email client's offerings. Gmail and Yahoo users many opt-out of receiving targeted advertising, but cannot prohibit the companies from following their digital footprint. Many people, such as Representative Edward J. Markey from Massachusetts, fear that this violates users' right to privacy. Gmail responds to these concerns on its website:
"Ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email in order to target advertisements or related information. This type of automated scanning is how many email services, not just Gmail, provide features like spam filtering and spell checking. Ads are selected for relevance and served by Google computers using the same contextual advertising technology that powers Google's AdSense program."
Microsoft, which does not track users' online behavior nor display targeted advertising, responded to Google's policy in a blog post, promoting its own products including Hotmail, Bing, Office 365 and Internet Explorer. In the post, Microsoft claims to "work to keep you safe and secure online and "to give you control over your data." The company has also released a print advertisement with a headline reading, "Putting People First," condemning Google's tracking technology.
Most recently, a video leaked from a Microsoft sales conference, poking fun at this tracking technology.
So what do you think? Do you think targeted advertising threatens internet users' email security or provides more relevant and entertaining advertising? As with any new technology, people may feel apprehensive in accepting it right away. Perhaps over time, people will come to appreciate the intelligence and customization of this targeted advertising--who doesn't like a little bit of individual attention?