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Jul 05, 2024

Our Business Isn’t More Important Than Your Privacy.

Privacy concerns and the internet have gone hand-in-hand for decades now, and rightly so. 

A fair few genuine examples of what happens when someone’s privacy isn’t protected show that it can lead to dreadful consequences. Unsurprisingly, given their appreciation of their own history, the Germans have been at the forefront of shouting about concerns regarding privacy. We take a look at how the situation developed to where we are now.

Why your privacy is important

Laws such as GDPR were only really brought in because legislatures started to have serious concerns about how much data was being collected about individuals. The driving force behind this widespread intrusion into people’s lives and online activities was driven by the desire to show more relevant ads to people. Unfortunately, the industry as a whole didn’t really separate between interests that are fairly innocuous such as, “This person would be interested in buying a new pair of trainers,” and information which could be embarrassing or even dangerous to be exposed about a user.

If someone glances at your screen while you’re searching for something innocent and the personalised ads showing up on your screen give away something you didn’t want to be made public, such as a medical condition, or information about your sexual preferences you may be unhappy for that to be shared without your consent. Then there’s the story of the young woman who received coupons for new baby items from Target in the US, which tipped off her father to her being pregnant despite being still in school. Thankfully, the father in that story was understanding, but given recent changes to laws, especially in the US, today such actions could have much darker consequences.

Then there are the infamous election ads powered by people like Cambridge Analytica. These used data collected for advertising purposes to target users based on their political opinions to swing the vote in two contentious cases in 2016.

Why relevant ads became such a big deal

Advertisers online really want to show their ads to people who are interested in buying what they have to sell. This is where ad targeting comes in.

Back in the early days of the internet, ads were shown based on the nature of the website where the ad appeared, much like the ads on TV revolved around the nature of the show. If you wanted to advertise something to men, you’d advertise on a website that was about traditionally male interests, if your target audience was teenagers then you’d look for websites about what teenagers were interested in. That was often quite a wasteful approach and if you were advertising something niche then you could have real difficulty finding an audience. Your ad could be shown to a thousand people only for maybe one per cent of them to be even vaguely interested, and maybe one in ten of those people to actually click on your ad.

To counter this very hit-and-miss process various advertising platforms started to collect information on users. This information was then used to refine which ads might be of interest to that particular person. While that wasn’t entirely a bad thing at the beginning, as these tech companies online started to grow larger, this is where the danger started to creep in.

An ocean of data

Google, Facebook (now Meta), Apple, and Microsoft are the big four tech giants who probably know more about you than you know yourself. Your actions online probably mean you’re giving some signals to at least one of those companies to learn something about you every time you do anything. It’s not just you that they have information about, it’s millions, or even billions of people. From that ocean of data, they can spot patterns. Using machine learning, they can look for things that you might do in the future, based on the behaviour of other people who did similar things to you. What you might be interested in, what you might buy, what movies you might want to watch, or whether you’re likely to develop certain medical conditions.

Those patterns might be simple, such as someone who searched for diamond rings might be interested in buying or hiring a tuxedo in a few months, or be in the market to kit out a nursery in a couple of years. Or they might involve hundreds or thousands of small actions over more than a year which indicate that you might be in the market for a new pair of Wellington boots.

Legal protection and the user fightback

As the sheer scale of the personal data being hoarded by large online companies started to become apparent, governments and individuals started to push back. The EU have generally been at the vanguard of user privacy regulations, often driven by German concerns about the implications of such power in anyone’s hands, let alone a private company.

As public perception of how much information these tech giants held on everyone grew, so did the companies’ desire to not look bad. Coupled with the new legal regulations which threatened hefty fines, the whole world suddenly had to be more open about what they were doing with people’s personal information. You’ll have noticed when this happened, every site suddenly had to have a cookie notice for you to accept.

Since then, protections have been added to browsers and even whole operating systems to block unnecessary logging of your activities by data-hungry websites. Apple users on mobile devices possibly won’t have noticed anything, but the websites they visit now have much less information about the user. Firefox and now Chrome are following suit with automated privacy functionality being added.

So what information do website owners know about you?

Unless you give them your information, then honestly not much, unlike the big tech companies who could track you from site to site due to third-party services they offered. They can see where in the world you are, what sort of device you use, and how you came to be on the website. Of course, signing up for a service or filling out a contact form with your details gives that information to the website owner.

Paid Search Advertising

The information available about users doesn’t actually need to be associated with any Personally Identifying Information. We don’t need to know who you are. We look at groups of people, mostly to see how effective the different marketing efforts we’ve worked on are. Seeing how many people come to a site from a paid search ad and who are actually interested in what the site has to offer is the sort of thing we need to know. Do you buy a product, or sign up for a service? This can tell us if the ads are being targeted correctly. If not, we work hard to change that and improve our targets to ensure that only people who are actually looking for what the website has to offer are shown the ads.

This is a nice simple breakdown when we’re looking at paid search (or even organic search) marketing. Our clients pay for ads matching keywords that someone would use if they’re looking for their products. Although there are some aspects of how search engines (especially Google) utilise personalised advertising, this isn’t something we get anything more than very top-level statistics on and absolutely nothing we can attribute to you directly.

Other advertising

When it comes to other sorts of advertising, especially ones that relate to targeting ads based on your interests, it could be helpful to know what your interests are, but that’s not information that would necessarily be easy for us to use. The sheer number of users and the “signals” about what you’re interested in would be overwhelming for a human to attempt to make sense of.

Google and Facebook have automated systems that can handle such quantities of data, which itself has strict limits based on the user agreements you make with them to use their services. Like with paid search, we don’t get to see the details of what they know about you. We just get something along the lines of, “There are potentially X number of people who have this interest in your target audience.”

So, how do we advertise without violating your privacy?

Quite easily, as it happens. We do advertise for many companies, in many different fields, without violating anyone’s privacy.

We use advertising platforms to publish ads and the ad being shown to you is dependent on your user agreement with that platform. If you are shown an advertisement, it’s because your behaviour on that platform fits the targeting parameters we have determined.

But, at no point do we know anything about you in particular. We don’t need to know about you personally. We deal with audiences and have no need to know what your exact interests or behaviours are that lead to you being in that audience. Our targeting will cover several audiences and specific factors, while we’ll look at the response we get from each, we won’t know precisely which resulted in you clicking on an ad you were shown, or even making a purchase.

So, the long and short of it is that we don’t know anything about you that you don’t tell us and the fact of the matter is that we don’t need to know anything about you that you don’t want to tell us.