If I'm on Google, Facebook, or any online news site plagued with sidebar ads, anyone could glance over my shoulder and tell you I'm a crazy cat lady. ...which I'm not. Usually.
But I will confess that I recently bought a cat stroller. Before you judge, please have faith in my sense of style that it was a reasonable, almost-but-not-quite baby stroller-looking contraption that would be less offensive when walking around the neighborhood than one might think.
To be honest, I never fully convinced myself that I wanted it. But Google decided that I did, and the next thing I knew, a UPS shipment was heading to Phoenix, Arizona.
Google is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's free: free e-mail, free social network site (if non-Google employees actually use Google+), free search engine, free e-book and journal article collection, free news source, free shopping site, free collection of millions upon millions of images...and the list goes on. Google provides a plethora of services for absolutely no cost to us as users.
Google's not-so-secret use of our data
But this isn't out of Google's goodwill -- no, Google is far too wealthy for that to be a possibility.
We are Google's source of income, or at least a considerable proportion of it.
With each and every click, we add one more data point to Google's expansive collection of personally relevant data. For every user, they can gather information on the sites we visit, how long we stay, where we go from there. They know what we buy, what we add to our shopping cart but don't buy, what we want to see when we press the "Search" button...be it for the answer to a question, request for an image, or updates on a news scandal. Google knows where we are, the places we frequent, when we're likely to pointlessly browse the Internet, when we're most vulnerable to make online purchases that we later regret.
And if this makes you nervous, it shouldn't. To Google, you aren't important -- you are merely another cluster of datapoints out of more than one billion.
And we live in a day and age where data is worth money -- lots of it.
In return for its free services, Google sells our data to third parties who closely track our purchase history, online shopping habits, and the items we consider but never purchase. So in my case, on a whim I searched for "cat stroller" on Google, followed a link to Amazon.com, and briefly browsed their selection. Lost interest, balked at the prices, closed that browser tab, and moved on with my life.
But a third party, be it Amazon or a more pet-related site (e.g., Chewy.com, PetSmart, PetCo), wasn't ready to let me go quite yet.
For days I was plagued with sidebar ads of cat strollers at such an extent that one of my students, while looking over my shoulder as I Google searched an article on Social Identity Theory, started to giggle.
Google's failure: The Google ad fallacy
After a week, I gave in -- and thus let Google and its third-party clientele win. I regretted that decision, partially because it ended up being a crappy cat stroller (and I later returned it), but mostly because I displayed a moment of weakness after seven days of constant exposure. Few sites were safe from my own Web-browsing past, come back to haunt me.
And this is where my use of the word fallacy is of the utmost importance: Google's third parties are no more useful than a dictionary definition that parrots itself (e.g., dis·ten·tion [n] : The act of distending or the state of being distended ...here's lookin' at you, American Heritage Medical Dictionary).
When you shop for something online, one of two things can occur: (1) You buy the thing, or (2) You don't buy the thing.
First, Google and its third parties don't realize that if you buy the the thing, you don't need to see it on every page you visit for the next two weeks. You got it. It's done. It's en route to your house.
Second, Google and its third parties fail to assume that if you don't buy the thing, there's probably a reason why you moved on with your life. You decided to check out similar items in stores close by. You decided you neither wanted nor needed it. You were curious for a split-second, wanted to see what a foot spa even looks like, and left with your thirst for foot spa-related knowledge quenched.
Use our data to its fullest potential
In short, Google and its third-party cronies assume that our tastes are unique to a single item or classification of items (e.g., any pair of diamond studs; any Kate Spade purse); however, it never moves beyond that. Chances are, if I just purchased a set of gardening pots, I'll probably be interested in other garden-related products; if I was browsing tents, I'm probably interested in other camping tools.
Data are messy, classification of an Internet's worth of items isn't easy. Even so, we provide Google with the data they need to begin these classifications: We search through text. Our search terms imply keywords. These keywords tend to fall into self-explained groups.
I write this at a time when I don't know if a solution is in the works, or if ad recommendations are growing more tailored to us as people, and not purchase intentions. For example, Google could tell you just as easily as my friends that I like dresses, jewelry, and pumps, but I also like new tech gadgets, books about technology, and anything Harry Potter. It might even know about my collections of Starbucks City Mugs and miniature Buddhas.
Understanding data clusters by user is not easy, but it's possible -- and in a digital age where our data will never be fully our own, it's important that corporations better understand us as people who change our minds, who adapt our interests, who let old hobbies die. Just as our search behaviors should never come back to haunt us (particularly on every sidebar we see), neither should we hesitate to glance at an Amazon product for fear of the coming flood of ads.
If we can't be promised privacy of our data, we should at least be guaranteed interests aligned with what we might want, but never knew we wanted -- with what would benefit us as users, but has never crossed our paths before. Use my data to its fullest potential, rather than maintaining a surface level approach that assumes singular and isolated interests, one search at a time.
If I searched for a cat stroller but never followed through by purchasing it, show me cat harnesses. Leashes. Fenced-in playpens.
I take that back. Those ads could lead me down a slippery slope.