In Defense Of Being Tracked Online

Are you ultimately responsible for your purchase decisions? In other words, are you powerless to resist the most hyper-targeted and relevant sales pitch? Hopefully the answer is of course not – if you don’t want to buy something, no advertising, no matter how well designed can convince you otherwise.

That frame of mind is important to keep when articles come out that get people fired up about their lack of privacy online. Recently there was a New York Times Magazine article where Target’s data mining was described as being able to detect when a teenage customer was pregnant, before even her own father knew. I don’t think the negative outweighs the positive. At its worst Target is trying to make their catalogs more relevant in hopes someone will be influenced to buy, at their best Target is removing spam and junk advertising and delighting people by helping them find the products they need.

The perceived threat out there is that there’s so much data collection going on that users don’t know about, but so what? Offline tracking has been intrusive for a long time and no one has ever been hurt.

The steps being taken in congress with The Privacy Bill Of Rights will require the net’s biggest online ad networks to respect a “Do Not Track” setting in browsers. Ok, thats fine – giving people a consistent and clear way to not be tracked is not a bad idea. But those people who choose to not be tracked will have an inferior experience on the web as a result.  Taken to extremes, policies like this could lead to damaging the web for everyone.

Personalization is where online retailers predict what you’ll want to buy using all the data they have on you – showing mens jeans on their home page instead of kids socks because they know you’re male, looked at jeans last time you were on the site and don’t have kids. This is what makes TV ads so intolerable is that they have no clue who is on the other side of the TV so they can’t help but be irrelevant. I will only be better off if I never see another commercial for tampons.

Do you want your barber to forget what kind of haircut you like each time you show up? These are the value adding benefits that tracking has. Content online is funded with ads so less relevant ads means there are less advertisers who want to advertise because the returns go down, which means less quality content being produced on the web.

I like being tracked. So far for me its all been upside – more relevant ads and personalized website experiences.

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