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Google’s new My Activity and Ads Personalization seek to make ads better, provide more user control over data
A pragmatic mix of good policy and self-interest, the new tools give users more control and enable more sophisticated ad targeting.
Roughly a year ago Google introduced “My Account,” a centralized privacy and security center where people could manage their data and information used by Google. Yesterday the company began a global rollout of a new panel within My Account, called My Activity.
My Activity extends the mission of My Account and gives users a more holistic view of their search and browsing histories. This is the first time that Google has brought together all the activity data it has on individuals in a single place.
You can view the history of videos watched, topics searched and other content consumed across Google, and across the web via Chrome. Particular topics or queries can be removed from your history across Google properties. For example, users could purge all research conducted on “nonprescription weight-loss supplements” or “Solar City” or “Bewitched” to avoid seeing ads or content recommendations tied to those topics.
Any particular item of history from any property can thus be deleted. Google does caution users against deleting data, but the process is simple and pretty straightforward.
In parallel with My Activity, Google is introducing “Ads Personalization.” This is an evolution of the older “Ads Preferences Manager” and newer “ad settings” manager, which allows people to influence the types of ads they see by indicating areas of interest or disinterest or by entirely opting out.
The new Ads Personalization functionality is turned off by default and must be activated by consumers. Google will expose users to the new personalization option and invite them to turn it on. The company promises better and more relevant ads from opting-in. Google hopes Ads Personalization will not only improve the ad experience but give users a better sense of control over the ads they see — across devices.
I was told that Google worked hard to make the explanation and language surrounding Ads Personalization clear and easy to understand. Here’s one communication:
My Activity and Ads Personalization are overlapping and share themes of transparency and user control. Not everyone will see these as primary motivations however. Splitting the difference, I think we can call it enlightened self-interest.
When Google introduces new features or capabilities like this it’s always something of an ink-blot test. If you’re cynical about Google’s motives, as many are, you’d likely see this as a way to incorporate more data for ad targeting while seeking to insulate the company against privacy objections. It’s also fair to say that some of this and other recent Google ad enhancements are a response to Facebook’s targeting capabilities.
Yet this is also a middle path and way forward — offering enhanced targeting and simultaneously instilling greater user confidence and opt-in participation through more transparency and control over data.
While these announcements will probably raise few concerns in the US, they will almost certainly see push-back in Europe. EU Regulators have long objected to broad data collection practices by US internet companies such as Google and Facebook. However, they are also likely to applaud Google’s effort to give users more control over their data.
Putting aside second-guessing Google’s motives, a practical question is: How many people will actually investigate and engage with these new tools? For example, the online ad industry initiative “AdChoices” has been a failure. However, Google indicated that it’s going to make a sincere and sustained effort to educate users about the new features.
In a broader context, these tools are part of a larger Google project to improve ad quality and the overall ad experience, to combat the rise of ad blocking and increasing consumer ad avoidance.