Google Launches Personalized Ads: Handy Feature or Privacy Storm?

What if the only online ads that reached your eyes were for items you might actually be interested in? And what if online advertisers knew what items you might actually be interested in based solely on the content of your emails? Now we know, courtesy of Google.

What if the only online ads that reached your eyes were for items you might actually be interested in?  And what if online advertisers knew what items you might actually be interested in based solely on the content of your emails?  Now we know, courtesy of Google.

If you’re a Gmail user, you may have already noticed a message at the top of your inbox, just under the search bar, that says, “Coming Soon: Better Ads in Gmail.”

Those “better ads” would be ads that learn what you’re interested in based on your email habits.  If, for example, you frequently email your friends about that cross-country bicycle tour you’ve always wanted to complete, Gmail may now start showing you more ads related to biking tours or a local bike shop.

Google has gone down this path before with its AdSense system, begun in 2004, that identifies keywords in users’ email messages to serve up relevant sponsored links in the sidebar.

Google’s new ad system, however, will guess what you’re interested in based on the history of emails you’ve read and sent in the past, not just what you’re currently reading, and take your location into account too.

The company has quietly began rolling out the feature, announcing it in an update to the Gmail Security Center – notably not in an official blog post as it usually trumpets new features.

Google explained that the new Gmail advertising will take a similar approach to “Priority Inbox,” an extra feature added last year that automatically judges whether emails are important based on emails you have read, deleted or reported as spam in the past, and sorts the emails accordingly.

The brand of behavioral targeting introduced by the new ad system means less annoying ads for consumers, says Google.

But it also means the online search giant is now essentially compiling a detailed, stored profile of each Gmail user, would argue privacy watchdogs and skeptical Gmail users.

Seeking to stay a step ahead of any privacy-related backlash, Google made sure to highlight three features of its ads policy in the Security update explaining the new system.

First, Google said Gmail users who do not want their emails to be profiled will be able to opt out of the system once it is enabled on their account.  Like most Google features, the new ad system is turned on by default, so users not interested will have to take the extra step to uncheck the new button, below, that will soon appear in their Gmail settings.

Second, Google again vowed that no personally identifiable information from your Gmail account is ever shared with advertisers.

And, third, the company reminded users that no human is actually going to comb through their emails:

“Ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email in order to target advertisements or related information. This type of automated scanning is how many email services, not just Gmail, provide features like spam filtering and spell checking. Ads are selected for relevance and served by Google computers using the same contextual advertising technology that powers Google’s AdSense program.”

Google says that the personalized ads won’t actually go live for all users for at least one month. In the mean time, another reminder that users can opt-out of the new system through Gmail’s settings panel.