Thursday, April 12, 2012

Social Networking and Demographics - FAIL

Some of these ads are clearly directed toward me based on harvested demographic data.   For example, Facebook knows I went to high school in the 1970's and have a home in Upstate New York.  I am not sure why it thought that sleep apenea, single girls, or couples rings would appeal to me, though.  Is this concept of targeted advertising really effective?

The big explosion on the Internet today is supposed to be all about Social Networking and Demographics harvesting.   Both Google and Facebook are into it, and everyone else is following suit.

How does it work?  Well all those wall postings, tweets, Google searches, blog entries, Google docs, likes, dislikes, comments on forums - whatever you type in - are monitored by computers, under the Terms of Service (ToS) and keywords are logged, ostentatiously to determine where your interests lie.

It is an interesting concept, because if it worked, it would link you to advertisements that are in your areas of interest, and thus make online advertising more effective.  Why advertise feminine napkins to men?  Why pitch Geritol, Depends, or EnSure to 20-year-olds?   By targeting your audience using basic demographics (which the audience willingly provides, thanks to the profile page) you can advertise more effectively.

And if the person on your site (or suite of sites, such as Google) mentions in passing that he likes Fords, or searches on "Ford Focus" then why not redirect his sidebar ads to Ford, instead of "one trick of the tiny belly?"   Or if they post a note on their wall about dieting, then send them off to the tiny belly people.

In theory, it makes sense.  In theory, it is effective.   In theory.  Reality is another matter.

The problem with this type of marketing - which Google and Facebook both employ, is that it flings advertisements in your face for things you already bought.

As a result, you are never exposed to new ideas or products.  If you mention Ford, you see ads for Fords.  If you mention a product you bought or like, you see ads for the same product - which you already have.

Again, the basic premise of advertising is to convince you to do something against your own self-interest.   They want you to buy some piece of junk you don't want or need, by convincing you that you want it - and need it - and that it is a good bargain.   If you fall for this, you end up spending more than you intended, in most cases.   Which is why it pays to not watch advertising, to ignore advertising, and to specifically not buy things that are heavily advertised - they are usually raw deals.

However, the one socially useful function of advertising is to educate people about products they don't have and are not aware of.   An advertisement can educate the public about a new restaurant opening, a new type of car available, or relative price discounts on products or services (the last, alas, in theory only, as most prices advertised these days are come-ons).

The Social Engineering Demographics-harvesting model reverses this, by educating you about products you already know about and have.

So, for example, I posted a note the other day about using an oil extraction pump from AutoSport.   I am happy with the product, having bought two (one for my summer home, since sold at a garage sale) and would highly recommend the product.

So, all next week, I get a sidebar ad from the AutoSport catalog, touting their oil change pump.  Gee, thanks.  Already have one!

The ad is not effective - it is trying to sell me something I already own.  What is the point of that?

Similarly, if I post a message that says "Product XYZ Sucks!" - after I hit "Publish Post" an ad comes up for . . . you guessed it . . .  Product XYZ.

This data and demographics harvesting model is deeply flawed, and yet we are told this is the "next big thing" and advertisers on Google are paying top bucks for it and Facebook is supposed to be worth $10 Billion because of it.

Here's a hint, advertisers:  You are getting ripped off if you are paying a premium for this sort of "service".   And here's a hint to stock-pickers:  Facebook isn't going to do it, for the long-haul.

Why?  Well there are two additional problems with this model, in addition to the fact it don't work.

First, it accelerates the trend, on the Internet, where people seek out like-minded folks and re-circulate their own ideas.   The neo-Nazis have their own websites, as do the OWS Commie protesters.   Never the twain shall meet.   The Internet is less an open forum but a series of cubicles or niches where people of like-minded political thought and social values congregate.  And that is just sad - and wrong.  It takes the promise of the Internet and destroys it.   Instead of uniting us, it divides us.

Second, it is creepy, and people are noticing this and objecting to it strongly.  Google is already "filtering" your search results based on your demographics and other harvested data.   As a result, when you search on Google, you find the world to be a very small and narrow-minded place.  Ideas that are contrary to yours are never presented, and Google, far from being a "search engine" ends up just bootstrapping what you already know and believe.

This tends to blunt Google as an effective research tool, as no longer does it search the Internet for everything, but rather just for stuff you already like.  Not very useful!

And many people online are decrying this effect, particularly Google's "personal search results" - and advocating signing OUT of Google sites before using their search engine.   I used to think that people who got all creepy about their personal data and "privacy" were being weird and paranoid.  But increasingly, I am less and less sure of this.  My life is an open book, but that doesn't mean I want you to use that book to try to play me - like a cheap violin.

I think another problem is that a lot of people feel the same way I do, in that they view Internet advertisements as one tiny level above a carnival barker or snake-oil salesman.  Clicking on links for sidebar ads or embedded ads is just a bad idea, period, as many of them, like the recent spate of ads on MSNBC for the "Howard Johnson Motor" are just bullshit.

And perhaps that is the problem with the advertising industry (industry? where's the smoke stack?) in general.   All ads are starting to take on the air of, well, bullshit.   We get inundated with a caveman who buys "Ugly Houses" - which is more of a come-on to sell franchises more than anything else (and like spring daisies, he disappears from view mysteriously).

Or we get car ads touting low monthly payments, with a ton of fine print, and of course, no one qualifies for the payment indicated.   Invention brokers, scam artists, all sorts of low-lifes - they advertise on the TV, radio, billboards, and magazines.  Smithsonian has basically gone to an all crap advertising base, with its jitterbug phones and gov't gold.

In fact, I doubt there is any advertisement today that could be considered "legitimate" anymore - almost everything today involves an outright deception.  And how is targeting ads based on demographics going to fix that?

Perhaps the only way would be to filter people based on IQ and then barrage the 80-and-lower crowd with the bulk of them.  Because only idiots would bite on these sorts of deals (and they do, with regularity).

I think this "technology" is going to fail, to some extent - or at least not be the big pot 'o gold everyone thinks it will be.   Google could find itself losing its fan base.   Already, I am post-Google-Chrome (you can't get it to work with Spybot or other malware engines, so I went back to Firefox) and my love affair with Google Docs, Blogger, Gmail, and Google Sites, is, well waning with each unnecessary format change and data harvesting operation.  We're still good friends, but, well, the thrill is gone.

And Facebook?  I kicked that bitch to the curb ages ago.