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February 27, 2012

Amazon and Google: Targeted Marketing versus Electronic Eavesdropping


I woke up this morning and found a newsletter from Amazon sitting in my Inbox.  The newsletter as you can imagine is full of words like “Great Deal” and “Gold Box Buy” and was announcing an upcoming video game sale.  Being a bit of a gamer-nerd, I’ll admit I bit and hit the link.  When I got to the webpage, it too was covered in banners touting “Great Deals” and “Gold Box Buys”.  However, there wasn’t a single video game on the page.  Not one.  What I did see where products like watches, TVs, PC cables, and power drills.  This was a bit of déjà vu since I had recently been to Amazon and searched for these exact types of products.  I was quite pleased after clicking on several of the links to find a nice drill.  Add to cart!

Now this isn’t news to anybody who has been online in the past five years.  Using search and personal information gathered while browsing to provide targeted marketing is fairly common in most sophisticated sites that host advertisements.  Advertisers expect their ads to be targeted and publishers want to provide their customers with useful information that increase sales.  The more personal information the publisher has about you, the more valuable you are to advertisers.

Why then did I, and many, many others, have such a negative reaction to the fact that Google was using information from their services, including Gmail, Google+, and YouTube to target ads in their search and service sidebars?  Since Google announced their new “streamlined” privacy rules, everyone from Microsoft to the US Attorney General is suddenly interested in how this information is being stored, used, and possibly misused.  As a developer, I also found that Google’s bypassing of privacy features in Safari and Internet Explorer to be a fairly blatant thumbing of their noses at legitimate attempts to keep my personal information private.  Google has fought back against much of the backlash with a blog post but does not deny that they use the content of your emails to target ads.

  • Myth: Google reads your email. [Microsoft]
  • Fact: No one reads your email but you. Like most major email providers, our computers scan messages to get rid of spam and malware, as well as show ads that are relevant to you.

So again the question I ask is why would I welcome the tracking behavior of a company like Amazon and yet feel violated by nearly the same actions taken by Google?  Is it that I inherently trust Amazon more than Google?  Not really.  To me, it’s all about context.  I go to Amazon to shop.  The context in which I interact with their site or use their mobile app is that I want to purchase something.  In that situation, advertisements are useful tools to direct me to money saving discounts or to highlight a product I might have otherwise not known about.  Basically, I show up looking to buy and they try to sell me stuff.  The context of the conversation is one of sales and so ads, even targeted ones, don’t seem unusual or out of place.

However, when I’m sending an email to my mother and just happen to mention a keyword like “birthday” it doesn’t mean I want to see greeting card and birthday balloon ads.  I’m not shopping and I didn’t intend to “invite” Google into this conversation.  This is what I call electronic eavesdropping.  It’s like having an over-eager salesmen listen to everything you do and then randomly jump into the conversation with an advertisement.  There is no way for an advertisement to appear in this context and not seem out of place and unwanted.

What do you think?  Is Google stepping over the line or is this just the real price we pay for “free” services like Google Search and Facebook?  Should we even care that Google is storing and indexing every email we ever send or receive in Gmail?  I don’t know about you but I’ve received a lot of unsolicited ads in Gmail, and would hate to think that somewhere in Google’s vast database is my name next to keywords like “Penis Enlargement” or “Cheap Viagra”.

About the Author

is a Chief Architect specializing in large scale distributed system development and enterprise software processes. Paul has more than twenty years of development experience including being a former Microsoft MVP, a speaker at technical conferences such as Microsoft Tech-Ed and VSLive, and a published author. Prior to working on the Windows platform, he built software using a vast array of technologies including Java, Unix, C, and even OS/2.