The Remarketing Trap
There's a great chase scene in Minority Report when Tom Cruise, having been identified as a future murderer, is making his escape through a futuristic mall. He's doing so with some urgency while trying to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, the advertising billboards, which are smarter than a NASA rocket scientist, start crying out to him, vying for his attention and blowing his cover.
There's a thin line between utopian ideals and dystopian realities, and it makes me chuckle to think that in the case of Minority Report, all that was needed to cross it was the involvement of a marketing department.
Marketing is a numbers game. It costs money to be personal, but the more personal you can be, the greater impact you can have. That's why getting machines to be personal for you has become something of a Holy Grail.
A Matter of Trust
That isn't necessarily good news for consumers, many of whom aren't aware that personalization is going on around them. Every day, billions of us go online and communicate. Some of what we say is private, but much more sits in the public domain, making the Web a force like no other, providing the fabric in which communities can develop, business can be transacted, and, as events in the Middle East have demonstrated, even revolutions can be organized.
Within this, search engines play a central role, enabling us to find what we are looking for at the touch of a button. Even as I write this article, I am realizing how much I take it for granted. During my university days, I spent plenty of time scouring the library and bookshop for relevant textbooks and papers. All I have to do now is fire up my browser and head for Google.
There is an important assumption we make every time we use a search engine, however: specifically, that it is presenting to us the most relevant and reliable information available. We don't expect results to be perfect, but we do expect them to have integrity and be free of manipulation. We expect the inquiries we make to be treated with discretion. This is the capital Google requires to win and maintain our trust and loyalty.
Relevance Is Personal
Search engines mess with this trust capital at their peril, which is why they take great care to separate advertising content and organic results. Advertising is designed to be attractive and alluring; it's there to state the positives rather than bring balance to a purchasing decision.
Google's masterstroke when combining the two has been to reward relevance. Advertisers do much better when their products and services are closely associated with the user's search terms, making life hard for spammers.
Fighting to retain relevance in its results is a hard-fought battle that can never really be won. That's because relevance is a highly personal concept. When consumers search online you can only guess at what their intentions are based on what they have typed. However, if you can glean a little bit more about them from other interactions you've had, then you stand a good chance of improving your prediction.
From the user's perspective, this might seem all to the good, and it's a marketer's dream. But making search results personal also has the potential to skew the results and undermine trust. Using the workplace as a metaphor, whose insight would you value the most -- a co-worker who tells it as he sees it? Or a co-worker who bases reports on her understanding of your preferences?
This applies to online advertising as well. Have you ever noticed that the same online seller pops up all over the place, after you have clicked on one of its ads? That's its advertising team paying the search engine to remarket its business to you.
Personalization and Privacy
Working hard to keep the attention of prospective customers is a perfectly acceptable and efficient marketing activity, but those of us on the receiving end need to know that our world view is being distorted. On an e-commerce website, that is to be expected; on a search engine, it undermines trust and removes objectivity.
Personalization also raises questions about confidentiality. Last Christmas, I went online and ordered all of my presents on the family computer -- job done! I was somewhat dismayed to find a day later that Amazon was remarketing the presents I'd purchased to my family, ruining the surprise. What's the point of trying to sell me something I've just bought?
Looking for a job on your office PC? Don't click on a paid ad, or you run the risk of the same business being promoted to you on every site that generates income from advertising. It doesn't really matter what the context is -- up the adverts pop, capturing not only your attention, but everyone else's as well.
Of course, every technology that's ever been invented has had its detractors, and I don't count myself among those opposed to personalization and remarketing. At the same time, I don't want to share the same experience as Tom Cruise's character in Minority Report and have every device I touch try to tell me -- and those around me -- who I am and what my motives are.