Monday, 19 August 2013

Why I don't mind sharing my data with Google

Image: Live
A few weeks ago, I was in my office minding my own business when these two ladies came in. They were salespeople and so I reluctantly allowed them to give me their pitch. If they were selling something I actually wanted, I might have actually paid attention. Instead, I spent the 15 minutes they spent talking thinking of how I would politely decline their offer after they were done with their pitch. After it was all said and done, I learned that I wasn't the first victim of the day. Several of my friends also had visits from the same salespeople, and they too were unmoved by their sales pitch. It had been a while since I had to deal with salespeople, so this was like a reminder as to how I feel about salespeople in general - I find them annoying. Now this isn't anything personal I have against the people themselves, it's the profession that I find annoying. Forcing themselves into your daily schedule, sometimes even bothering you at home, trying to sell something to you that you weren't even interested in in the first place. It not only wastes our time as consumers, but their time as well. I find the whole concept flawed to be honest. Luckily, we are now in 2013, and encounters with salespeople are no longer a daily or even weekly occurrence. This is largely due to a new form of promotion and marketing - one we are all too familiar with - online advertising.

The shift to online advertising
When a company wants to sell a product, it needs a means to show the consumer what product they are selling, why they should buy it and how it's better than the competition. This is basically what advertising is all about. Getting information to the consumer. Advertising in itself is nothing new. Advertising is present everywhere we look; on TV, in the cinemas, in magazines and newspapers, on the radio, billboards along the roadside and even on public transportation like buses and taxis. The reason why online advertising is now so popular is because more and more people are spending their days online. When people spend more time online rather than watching TV, reading magazines or going to the cinema, it only makes sense for companies to invest more of their marketing budget into online advertising. Every website you visit is bound to have ads in their sidebars, and almost every major corporation with products to sell are likely to have ads online.

The major benefit of online advertising - targeted ads
Another reason why online advertising may be more favourable than traditional advertising is the fact that ads can be catered to specific individuals on the internet, which can't be done (or is extremely difficult to do) with traditional advertising. Unlike traditional advertising which is permanent, very generic and targeted at consumers at a societal level (everyone reading the same newspapers will see the exact same ads), online advertising is dynamic. Two people viewing the same website are likely to be provided with different ads, each targeted to the specific individual. Even the same individual may be shown different ads each time he visits the same website. This way, advertisers can ensure that they are marketing their products to people who might actually be interested in buying them, rather than use traditional advertising and hope that someone who sees it might actually be interested. So how are ads being targeted to individuals based on their interests? That's where the issue of user privacy comes into play.
An ad about a smartphone accessory, specific to my country or residence. 
The price of targeted ads - user data
This should come as no surprise to anyone - what you do online is monitored. If not by the authorities, then by the most powerful force behind the internet, Google. I'm not sure if Google are the only provider of targeted ads on the internet, but I'm pretty sure they are the largest. The way targeted ads work in a nutshell is this. Google tracks your search queries, the websites you visit and scans your Gmail among other things. This is how Google are able to know what your interests are. Through a service called AdSense, Google have teamed up with over two million businesses for advertising purposes. Based on your interests, Google will display relevant ads from these partners when you browse the internet. As an example, when I wanted to buy a tablet I did quite a bit of research online, reading and watching reviews. Google picked up on this, and displayed ads from online retailers who sell tablets. This is how I found ipmart.com, a local electronic devices retailer, where I eventually bought my Nexus 7 from. ipmart pays Google to advertise their site, and Google in turn pays whichever site I clicked the ad from. And I found an online retailer selling what I'm looking for. Everyone wins, and all because I allowed my data to be tracked by Google.
Some of my interests that Google have compiled, which is used to target ads specific to me.
Are targeted ads worth your privacy?
If you ask me, I say they are. Many people will argue that nothing should be more important than user privacy, and to an extent I agree. But here is why I think sharing my user data with Google is worth it - free stuff. You see, Google's core service is search, and as an extension of that, their core business is advertising. With all the money Google make from advertising, they are able to provide many services to us, the end user, for free. Android is free for manufacturers to use, which keeps the cost of smartphones and tablets lower (relatively). Google Drive, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Calendar and many other Google services are free to use. Now you might argue that there are other alternatives which are also free. This is true, but I doubt any company can offer the same amount of integration between all the services you use as well as Google can. One of the greatest features of Google services are that they are all linked by your Google account. You can use alternate providers for every service you use but like I said, they are unlikely to provide you with the same level of integration that Google services can. Besides, I'd much rather be shown ads that are relevant to me than ads I would never ever be interested in, which is what I normally deal with on Facebook.
Thanks Facebook. But I'm not interested in buying a vespa. Never have been.
Side-note - The shift to mobile advertising
Online advertising makes sense because many people are living their lives online. So when more and more people are using smartphones and tablets to do this, the logical step would be to provide advertising on your mobile device. Many apps are free to download and use, the caveat being you will have to deal with ads when you use the app. Some ads are merely bars on the bottom or top of the screen, some ads pop-up in between game levels, and some games offer you in-game credit to click on links to watch ads. Some may say that this interrupts the user experience, and I agree. Which is why if I like an app and feel the developer deserves to get paid for his hard work, I will buy the full version of the app. In-app advertising is merely a means for the developer to earn some money for his hard work. If you don't like the ads, buy the full version and support the developer. You can't expect both free apps and ad-free apps at the same time (there are of course some apps like this, but the developers usually have other sources of income).

Those are some of my thoughts on online privacy, and the concept of targeted ads. Many people will disagree and that's fine. When it comes to privacy, everyone has the right to deny outsider access. But for me personally, I don't mind sharing my browsing habits with a company who in turn provides me with free services and relevant ads that are actually useful to me. If not for Google's AdSense programme, I would've bought my Nexus 7 from a retail outlet for a higher price than what I got it for from the online retailer I discovered via Google's ads.