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Do Publishers Own Referred Data?

Companies are gearing up to make an absolute fortune in behavioral targeting by scraping Google search terms off of publisher referral data.  (Some already are!)

The theory is simple: Search has credibility with advertisers as a very effective behavior with high conversion rates.  The only people with active search behavior data today is Google.  When someone searches for something and then clicks, their browsers HTTP_Referrer is set to the last page they visited, possibly something like: (Where “Searching For Cars” was their query on Google).  So if a behavioral data gatherer like Magnetic is sitting on a publisher with a lot of search driven traffic (most web sites), they can gather a lot of referrer data.  Logging this allows for (As Magnetic’s web site describes it):

Magnetic™ is search re-targeting. The Magnetic data marketplace empowers advertisers and publishers to use search data as the key indicator of intent and re-target campaigns to the most relevant audience online. With more than 270 million search profiles, Magnetic significantly lifts the value of media and improves campaign performance.

A few years ago I had a similar, albeit less brilliant idea: It would be easy, in the same vein, to write a few lines of javascript that compared lists of sites to a browsers user history.  In that way, you could easily sell conquesting: Dell could show ads to everyone that had visited AT ANY TIME IN THE PAST.  All, without requiring Apple’s consent.  And I was able to get that data because I had a deal with Website X that allowed me to run tests against user history data in the browser without the user knowing.

Now, maybe a post like this will cause some start-ups to start coding away on this (no need, really.  It is only about 10 lines of javascript, then you have to ajax-ly forward it to your server.  Here is how.).  That is not my intention, obviously.  The real question is: Is that OK?  And if it isn’t, how is it different than the search retargeting we are seeing blossom in the market today.

What about other uses of that technology?  Could Microsoft offer special discounts to people that had visited recently?   Is it OK to essentially steal that data from a user?  Should you know what competitors a potential customer is talking to?

I posit that this whole area is about as far into a potentially unethical gray area as one could go.  There is basically no difference between any of these examples and they all make me want to turn off referrer data in my browser.

What do you think?  Are you OK with every website knowing every web site you visit and query you type into a search engine?  That seems like where we are going.

2 Responses to “Do Publishers Own Referred Data?”

  1. Alan Pearlstein Says:

    When we first started harvesting referral search data I had the same idea that you outlined above. Ultimately I avoided the strategy because we couldn’t identify the recency of the previous visit to the URL target and we would have had difficulty monetizing the data since our focus is on “in-market” shoppers. I guess since i am OK harvesting the immediate referrer, I would have been OK about harvesting all previous search and surfing activity. I’m not sure there is a difference from an ethical perspective.

  2. brent Says:

    Why are you OK with that? :-)