So, just in case you didn't see it, Google launched their new beta behavioral ad serving services last week. The trial officially launched on YouTube and Google last Wednesday, but most of us won't get to really use it until April.
Interestingly, the news following the announcement isn't how innovative this new service will be for marketers (which I believe will be, at most, mildly interesting) - it's about re-opening the privacy scare box. In fact, as I write this and do a search for "Google Behavioral Advertising" in Google News - almost every single link has headlines like "The Shady Ways Advertisers Track You Online" or "Many See Privacy on Web as Big Issue, Survey Says".
It's just like that scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault walks in and closes Rick's down and says "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!".
So, yeah, these are nice big scary headlines - and I'm sure we'll see the requisite morning show scare-a-segment on how "big brother" is going to track you. But here's the thing - I've had a few people come up to me over the last few days and ask "what do you think about the Google behavior based advertising thing". I ask them - "do you have a Facebook or a MySpace page?". They usually say "yes" (which kinda scares me a bit - but that's a different story). But guess what? If you do - then it's already game over - you've already swallowed the Blue Pill. Welcome to blissful ignorance.
If you maintain any meaningful type of Social Networking presence on Facebook - and update it with any regularity - you're not only providing 10X more behavioral data for advertisers - you're providing contextual data for specific targeting down to the field level.
Using Facebook advertising, I can almost literally focus my advertising down to display to one person. That's pretty interesting to me as a marketer because it points to relevance - and certainly worth much more consideration from privacy advocates. And now, as it approaches 200 million members in their walled garden - that starts to get interesting enough to start thinking about using Facebook as a true contextual ad network. Everybody get your pitchforks ready....
But Google of course has a much larger ocean to deal with here. And as a marketer using Google, I don't get to know "who" visited my site because an advertisement was targeted. I only get to know that this visit came from a targeted ad.
So, because the browser that Bob is using (again that's all I know - I don't even really know if it was Bob in the driver's seat) had the tags "technology/computers/web/comic books" in his profile - and that it matched the targets I put in place. Will that ad be more effective? Well, it may or may not be more effective. Theoretically, my ads in search, and on sites using Google's technology will present more contextual ads based on my surfing habits. But it will also be presenting those ads to my wife when she's on my computer doing research, or to my niece when she's on my computer doing homework.
Also consider that Google, much to the lukewarm joy of some privacy advocates, allows you to opt out of it. And how quickly do you believe that there will be a Firefox plugin that allows you go "f" with the system [UPDATE: I swear I didn't know this on sunday when I wrote this - but the FireFox Plugin just come out as of today 3/17/09] - assigning random categories every few clicks so that the results are skewed, or periodically deleting your DoubleClick cookies. Oh, believe it. It's coming.
Finally, just remember that it's in Google's best interest to not get too good at this. Because guess what? In a world where Advertisers pay for growing effectiveness, and Publishers using PPC networks are paid based on an assumption of at least some multiple, irrelevant clicking - you can't swing that penduluum too far without reducing everybody's share of the dough.
In short, behavioral targeting has been around for some time - and I've seen it markedly improve some results. But, I've also seen it not work just as often. It's all about experimenting and driving results based on your unique situation. It's easy to get people to your web site. It's hard to get people to do something on your web site. And, I would argue it's not about making sure that the content is more relevant at the ad - it's making sure that the content on your web site is more relevant and guiding the prospect to engage with you. Now, if we can just get that Google Customer Service Robot working....