Startup Gets Ad Data Via Web Providers

The Associated Press
Monday, December 10, 2007; 9:25 AM

-- As Internet advertising is increasingly precisely targeted to meet consumers' presumed desires, the trick for advertisers is to sniff out people's interests and needs without riling their privacy defenses.

Silicon Valley startup NebuAd Inc. believes it has reached this balance with a new ad-serving system _ even though its system of peering inside Internet traffic might seem ominous.

NebuAd's system is designed to improve on Web sites' long-standing practice of dropping tiny tracking files known as cookies on visitors' computers. When those cookies indicate enough about a Web surfer's interests, related ads can be made to appear.

But the fact that you visited a site doesn't say as much about your interests as knowing what you did there and afterward. Did you read several articles or quit halfway through one? Did you leave the site to research the topic further on a search engine?

To glean those deeper insights, NebuAd installs equipment inside the facilities of Internet service providers (ISPs), which see everything their customers do online. NebuAd's boxes examine many of the sites people visit, what they do there and what they hunt for on search engines.

While some tracking mechanisms can ferret out an interest in travel or the outdoors, NebuAd says it can tell whether you are in the market for a trip to the south of France or snowboarding gear.

The company won't say how many carriers or advertisers it works with, though CEO Bob Dykes said Internet providers representing millions of customers run NebuAd's system to let it gather information. In return, they get a share of the revenue from advertising NebuAd places.

The only ISP known to be working with NebuAd is Monroe, La.-based CenturyTel Inc., which has 530,000 broadband subscribers scattered throughout the country. NebuAd says some of the largest ISPs are at least testing the service.

Aspects of NebuAd's technique are already in play. For example, besides cookies, many online retailers deploy "clickstream analysis" tools that monitor what customers do on a given site _ what they browse, what they read, which items they put in their shopping carts but fail to buy.

As a much wider-ranging eye in the sky, NebuAd could pique more worries about privacy. And its creators have taken steps to mitigate them.

Dykes pledges his company never creates a database that could leak or be subpoenaed. It doesn't compile lists of sites that people have visited or what they did online.

Instead, its system works somewhat like a huge set of meters: one measuring interest in travel to the south of France, another tallying curiosity about snowboarding, and so on and on and on. Whenever you do something online that is thought to reveal heightened or diminished interest in a subject NebuAd tracks, the meter ticks up or down.

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