I’m getting annoyed by the increasing prevalence of online remarketing. Here’s more-or-less how it works: most of the sites you visit collect data on you with cookies. When you view something from an advertiser’s site, if they participate in remarketing and similar programs they’ll tag you with a cookie on your browser, which then essentially gets passed back to the ad networks that they pay to distribute online ads for their sites. Practical upshot: if you checked out the Google Nexus One a la Paul Waldmann or bought a coupon from Groupon like I did the other day, you’re going to be bombed for weeks or months with tons and tons of ads from Google or Groupon, at least until you wipe your cookies from your browser. This technology has been around for awhile, but as Google has integrated Doubleclick into its advertising products it’s gotten much, much more noticeable for the average consumer.

Beyond the obvious creepiness factor, I’m struggling a bit to explain exactly why I don’t like this trend. I think it boils down to something like this: the ad networks pitch remarketing to advertisers as just a way to serve their customers with extremely relevant, highly targeted advertising. And that’s true, as far as it goes: I bought a Groupon, so I’m much more likely to be a continued Groupon customer than someone who’s never even heard of Groupon. The problem stems from the fact that, as it turns out, I’ve already taken pains to define my engagement with Groupon very precisely: I subscribe to their RSS feed and get all my local Groupon offers delivered to my newsreader, thus ensuring that any additional contact from Groupon about those offers is going to be superfluous, and thus annoying. It’s a little bit of a paradox in that the old, dumb world of online display advertising was less relevant and less likely to be something I was interested in. That made those old ads very easy to reflexively ignore. But the new world of remarketing isn’t like that. I’m still not interested in most of these goods and services, but now I can’t stop the ads from becoming mental clutter.

So what to do? Well, one thing that would decisively change my opinion on this stuff is greater sophistication. If Google shows me 1000 Nexus One ads over the course of two months and I still haven’t purchased a Nexus One, perhaps Google should take that as a hint that their price is too high for me to want to buy their phone, even though it was interesting enough to me to check it out on their site. A well-targeted ad offering a substantial discount would go much further to turn me into a customer than continuing to bombard me with the same stupid ads.

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