Remarketing, Google and Privacy Issues

I attended a Google webinar earlier this week on remarketing and very powerful it was. Just to make sure we are all talking about the same thing, remarketing is where you use your advertising, in this case Adwords, to get in front of visitors who have already visited your website for a second time. So if visitor A had visited your site and then goes off and visits a site on Google’s Display Network, then your ad will appear. If you are looking for information and visiting lots of content sites that display Google Ads, then ad may even follow you around.

Now there is no doubt that remarketing is a powerful marketing tool. Every advertiser knows that the more times a prospective customer sees a name and becomes familiar with it the more likely they are to buy from it. And so long as your website includes the correct private policy information, then it is perfectly legal. But is remarketing entirely ethical?

Google 10 points

Google’s 10 point corporate philosophy says “You can make money without being evil” often misquoted as ‘do no evil’. I certainly wouldn’t say that remarketing is evil, far from it. It may be aggressive but not evil.

However, going right to the beginning of Google, Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, is reported to have come up with ‘Don’t be evil’ as a sort of information slogan for the new company. He also added, and I am quoting from wikepedia here, it was “a bit of a jab at a lot of other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent” Here I do think Google has (again) fallen short of its lofty ideals.

In order to work, remarketing must collect and then use information about which sites you have visited and then deliver content, in the form of ads, based on that information. Technically your privacy policy should say what you are doing, but I very much doubt if there is 100% compliance on this, and even if there were, what percentage of the public would understand the implication of dropping cookies etc. Most internet users outside the online and advertising industries don’t understand the difference between organic and paid ads, what chance the finer points of cookies! To me that gets awfully close to “ exploiting the user to some extent”.

What I find particularly interesting is how inconsistent we as webmasters, and the web in general, is about privacy. Earlier this year in the UK, there was a tremendous amount of hype about the implementation of the EU directive on privacy. Companies were becoming paranoid about the need to inform visitors about the use of cookies – including ones for shopping carts and anonymous stats reporting. But almost nothing was said about remarketing cookies and cookies used for other sorts of advertising.

Google, in my view, is also inconsistent. It promotes the use of remarketing, provides keyword data to Adwords data, but declines to provide keyword data in organic search results on the grounds of privacy. I’ve never understood how it squares that circle.

Perhaps I ought to just add that I am happy to offer remarketing as a service to my clients – so long as they have the correct privacy policy in place. Another circle to square!


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