Ad Targeting Improves on Web Sites

The Associated Press
Saturday, December 1, 2007; 2:55 AM

NEW YORK -- Based on the weather reports and restaurant listings you check out online, Yahoo Inc. has a good idea where you live. Based on searches you've done, the Web portal might also know where you want to go.

Don't be surprised then to suddenly see an advertisement on flight deals between those two places. It's what United Airlines did with an ad on Yahoo earlier this year as people browsed for something completely unrelated to travel.

Elsewhere, online hangout Facebook is mining friends' buying habits, and major Internet portals have bought companies to expand their reach and capabilities for "behavioral targeting" _ all so advertisers can try to hit you with what they believe you're most likely to buy, even as doing so means amassing more data on you.

"When you are online today, you've been labeled and tagged as this type of consumer in milliseconds," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "All of a sudden you are exposed to a vast number of invisible salespeople who are peering over your personal details to figure out the best way to sell to you."

Behavioral targeting, commonly accomplished by depositing tiny data files on personal computers to keep track of surfing patterns, has raised privacy questions and, at least in the case of Facebook, user complaints.

From the perspective of Web sites and advertisers, though, behavioral targeting can bring to the rest of the Internet some of the relevancy Google Inc. and others successfully mined for billions of dollars with text-based search ads.

"Everyone's trying to find the next, best mousetrap to compete with search," said Adam Broitman, director of emerging and creative strategies with ad agency Morpheus Media LLC.

Although behavioral targeting isn't right for all advertisers, it has become increasingly important as companies try to break through the clutter. The research company eMarketer projects that spending on behavioral targeting will nearly double to $1 billion next year and hit $3.8 billion by 2011.

Targeting has been around as long as there has been advertising. Automakers promote themselves in car magazines. Political campaigns send mail to likely voters. As advertising moved to the Internet, ads for diapers clung to parenting sites.

With search came contextual targeting _ the ability to target messages even more precisely based on search terms or keywords appearing in articles. Behavioral targeting brings capabilities to sites without good or reliable keywords _ for example, a social-networking profile that touches on dozens of hobbies and interests at once.

Read enough golf articles online and a data file will be put on your computer labeling you a golf fan. When you're on a Web site on cooking, don't be surprised if ads for golf clubs follow you there.

The concept has been around for years, but enough Web sites are now participating that advertisers can still reach a sizable group even if they target narrowly.

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