Behavioural targeting

By Hannah Kimuyu | 02 Apr 2009

Google set about expanding its display offering in mid March of this year, launching a behavioural targeting programme that will display ads across its AdSense content network and YouTube. This also marks Google's latest attempt to expand after acquiring display outfit, DoubleClick.

Unsurprisingly, the news sparked debate across the industry and beyond, with some commentators claiming Google has once again breached users' privacy rights. However, Google has been clear that the service will opt in all users, with users having to opt out if they prefer, which is in line with the latest Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) online behavioural targeting guidelines.

At Greenlight we can see why the behavioural targeting programme has generated such heated discussion, but we also feel strongly that Google is - and should be - driven by consumer search habits. Behavioural targeting seems the best way of achieving this.

What is behavioural targeting and how does it work?

Google's Interest Based Advertising (IBA), or behavioural targeting, allows advertisers to deliver ads based on hundreds of interest categories driven by previous interactions with users. It tracks internet users' behaviour through their browser cookies as they visit sites that have engaged with Google's AdSense programme.

Users are categorised according to these behavioural trends, for example as sports enthusiasts or potential property hunters. (However, the service will not capture and use sensitive details such as religion, sexual orientation, pornography usage, medical issues and political opinions.) The interest categories are then used to direct the most relevant possible text and image (display) ads to individual users.

To a certain extent users will be able to control the adverts that are targeted at them using the Ads Preference Manager tool. This will allow them to view, delete or add interest categories associated with their browser to make the ads more relevant. 

Who offers behavioural targeting?

Google is the first search engine to use behavioural targeting in its display offering, although Yahoo! launched Direct Response last year, providing display advertising via its own partner network. Slightly different to Google's new programme, Direct Response offers a CPA performance metric as a way of attracting new advertisers. This was a unique offering which took away the ambiguity with which display advertising was traditionally measured. 

Is behavioural targeting useful?

The benefits are clear for both the consumer and the advertiser: behavioural targeting increases your overall visibility in search and adds that much needed relevancy to Google's AdSense programme (content networked to the advertiser). The consumer will no longer see randomly placed adverts. Instead, the ads that are visible to them will concern areas or categories that interest that person specifically, based on their online activities. And if a category no longer holds their interest they can delete it and add the latest one that does. What's more, the fact that the consumer can control the ads they receive using the Ads Preference manager tool makes greater relevancy achievable. Once again Google is providing the consumer with an enhanced user experience.

From an advertiser's point of view behavioural targeting should improve the performance of campaigns targeting Google's content network (AdSense). Up until this point advertisers have struggled to see any real return on investment and have often only used the option for mass exposure, Google's content network being a cheap and reliable source of gaining greater visibility. Behavioural targeting may also narrow the gap between contextual search and traditional search, with Google, Yahoo! and MSN all now following a Quality or Index score driven by relevancy.

It's a great leap forward and we wonder if this will be the final step in taking people away from investing in traditional display advertising. After all, and understandably, advertisers prefer to engage in online marketing if it's performance driven and can demonstrate return on investment (ROI). If you can assign ROI to a specific activity then it follows that you are more inclined to pick this method of advertising.
And with Google signing up to a new set of guidelines on behavioural targeting from the IAB it seems the search engine giant has a legitimate case for pushing the programme forward.