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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Targeted Advertising: Is it really targeted?

So-called targeted advertising is now part of our online world thanks to Google and all those who think that it is an effective way to reach consumers. Even genealogists are affected when we start seeing ads for genealogically related products initiated by our searches for data on different websites.

There are a lot of doomsayers and hand-wringers who predict the end of the world as we know it caused by Google trying to sell us products, but does targeted advertising really accomplish what they think it does?

Many years ago, my wife and I started the tradition of opening our mail next to a garbage can. Most of the obvious junk mail goes directly into the garbage without even being opened. When the unsolicited or junk mail is opened, we generally do this in order to shred the contents that might contain information we do not wish disseminated. In addition, we have junk filters on our computers that filter out almost all the spam. But what about display ads?

The idea behind targeted advertising is that as you do searches online, the information about you and your searches is used to match you up to products you would be interested in purchasing. Actually, this is not a new idea at all. Advertising companies have been targeting mailings for a long time. The reason the issue has become a concern is mainly based on the fact that Google and other search engines can gather so much more detailed information about us as users of their search services. This data is seen as a "threat" to our "privacy" and the unauthorized use of our personal information for profit.

The reality falls way short of the imagined effect of this targeted advertising. Here are some examples of why I find this to be the case:

1. Suppose I buy a replacement part for something that needs repair. I use the part to make the repair. Immediately, I start to get a series of online ads for the same part or related parts. I do not need the part again and I may never need the part again. The ads are mere noise and I am not induced in any way to buy the same part again that I only needed one time. This "one-time" issue goes for other items that I only purchase once a year or so. If I buy a new car, I am not likely to buy another new car for a long time so immediate ads for cars are simply noise and have no interest for me at all.

2. Again, let's suppose I search for a general topic such as "genealogy." On Google, my results will have one or more paid advertisements for genealogy-related websites. Here is an example.

If I happened to click on one or more of these paid advertisements, Google would directly or indirectly make a very small amount of money. But if I had actually wanted to find any one of these four websites, I would have searched for the website directly. Google has no real way of determining my motivation for searching for a general term. In this case, I used the search term as an example in this blog (Note: if you are in to self-referential statements, this blog post is fast becoming one).

3. So-called targeted advertising is entirely subject driven. If I search for clothes, I get clothes ads and so forth. But my searches do not always fall into the category of an interest in purchasing products. Targeted advertising makes an invalid assumption that I am a constant and single-minded consumer when nearly all my decision to purchase items falls into categories that are not addressed by advertising. For example, I periodically need to maintain my cars including oil changes, tires, windshield wipers, etc. When I search for these items online, I have a specific item or service in mind. Suggestions of other products are merely noise. This is particularly evident when the ads are trying to sell me products I already use or purchase. The products I really need or want seldom, if ever, appear in the targeted advertising.

What does this have to do with genealogy? Here is a targeted ad from one of our commonly used genealogy websites:

Once I sign in to, my screen changes into a series of "targeted" ads for different features or products. Obviously, FamilySearch is not trying to get me to buy something, but they are trying to motivate me as a "consumer" of their services. Yes, I am presently a "Temple and Family History Consultant" but the repeated ad does not take into account that I have already extensively "learned about my calling." Likewise, I am abundantly aware of Record Hints (i.e. the blue icon list on the right side of the page). In fact, all I really want to do is use the catalog or go to the Family Tree, this constant reminder of the services is nothing more or less than noise.

FamilySearch is certainly not alone in this practice of targeted advertising. Here is another example.

Here again is a list of "Product and Services," most of which are merely redundant listings of the items in the menu bar. This list does not take into account that I already have purchased a DNA test from and has "Learn about AncestryDNA" at the top of the list. In short, their targeted list includes nothing I am interested in when I go to to do research or update my family tree. I know I can "customize" my Ancestry startup page, but I hardly notice this page as I continue to use the program. I am certain that there is a whole legion of Ancestry employees who agonize over what to put on this list and how to present it. Their entire effort is simply lost on me.

What seems to be lost on most, if not all, of these online advertisers is that we ignore them. When the level of advertising reaches a certain point we also stop using their services. One common question I get from those who use is what are they supposed to do with the stuff that appears on their personalized startup page and my response is always to just ignore it unless there is something they are really interested in doing right at the moment. Yes, there are websites and services I will not use, simply because they saturate their online environment with advertising. Here is an example.

There is nothing that will make me use I do not want and will not look at the stuff on this website.


  1. I agree with you. Indeed, if my search results in both an ad and a non-ad result for the same site I want, I deliberately chose the non-result.

  2. Thanks, James, for a very good explanation of targeted advertising. What I find very objectionable is excessive numbers of emails from a company from which I may have ordered something. I don't mind some of the emails but two or three emails daily is way too much. When that occurs, I also cease to do business with said company. Advertising pays the freight, and I understand that, but saturation is a deal-breaker for me.