Personalized Web Content, “Just for You”–In Exchange for Privacy

In Business Week’s Technology section, Catherine Holahan wrote an article entitled “The Web, Now Just for You” describing how some of the social network/news sites are beginning to mine their users’ preferences to make the systems “more personal.”  Once the guise is removed, it is clear that the real objective is to serve up targeted advertisements.  

Nearly 6 years ago I worked for a company that also went down this path.  Predictive Networks had created a mechanism whereby customers were granted free Internet access in exchange for permission to monitor surfing habits and present targeted advertisements.  The company created what they called a Digital Silhouette, or a numerical representation of each user’s interests in a number of different topics.  The Silhouette was enhanced based on an analysis of every site the user visited and advertisements most related to the user’s interests were displayed.  In theory, the model made good sense and some of the users even commented, “Hey, if I’ve got to watch ads, they might as well be something I’m interested in!” 

In practice, however, the model failed miserably, primarily because of the potential for invasion of privacy.  Despite having agreed to receive advertising supported Internet access, customers were not willing to give up their privacy. 

 CEO Kevin Rose’s vision of a “more personalized Digg” makes great sense for marketers trying to better target their audiences, but I can’t help but wonder whether Digg will find that, like Predictive Networks, the price to pay is too great.

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