The conventional wisdom goes like this: Companies can make a ton of money by knowing everything about you, then selling advertising that leverages your private information.
Because people don't like this, companies have to be sneaky about it, and conceal how much they know about you and how they're using your data.
But recently, Google has discovered that the opposite strategy could be even more lucrative. Now the company seems to be taking "not being sneaky" to unprecedented levels.
For months, Google has offered a site called the Ads Preferences Manager. On this site, Google explains in plain English how it targets you for advertising on both Google Search and in Google's Gmail.
For example, it specifies how the words you use in a current Google Search might be combined with past searches to offer up advertising that accompanies your Search results. And it says that keywords in your email conversations are used to conjure up related advertising on Gmail.
Better still, the Ads Preferences Manager lets you opt completely out of most advertisers, and also opt out of personalized advertising altogether.
This is all great stuff -- at least it's better than the conventional practice by most companies of just keeping all this information secret.
But soon Google will roll out something truly new and impressive. Anytime between right now and a few weeks from now, the company plans to add a link next to advertising in both Search and Gmail that tells you exactly why that ad was selected for you.
The link words will be: "Why this ad?" or "Why these ads?" For example, let's say you search for "trip to India." Above the search results, you'll probably see ads for travel agencies. On the right, you may see a variety of services offering discounted airline tickets. Each group of ads has the "Why these ads" link on top.
When you click on "Why these ads," it may say: "These ads are based on your current search terms." That means no personalization was used. If they were taking into consideration previous search history, or your location or other personal information, they would tell you.
Below that statement, it says: Visit Google's Ad Preferences Manager to learn more, block specific advertisers or opt out of personalized ads," with a link to the Ad Preferences Manager site.
Why Putting Users In Control Is the Most Profitable Strategy
In its announcement of the new features, Google hinted but did not promise that by using the Ad Preferences Manager, you could reduce the number of ads you see.
Fewer ads means more attention. When a site is constantly bombarding you with too many ads, the eyes glaze over and you stop paying attention. As a result, advertisers resort to increasingly shocking photos or other manipulative techniques to grab your attention.
Google's way is better. By whacking the ads you have no interest in seeing anyway, you're likely to assume by default that ads appearing on Google sites are interesting to you.
The more you use the system, the more you'll trust the results. Instead of ads being something others are pushing on you against your will, they become something under your control.
They're your ads now, not theirs.
You'll also have more awareness of the ads, because advertising becomes interactive. The more you interact, the more you'll pay attention to what appears there, and that boosts ad response for Google's customers, the companies that advertise.
And finally, user awareness and control over advertising improves the Google experience. You can block horrible, annoying, inappropriate and offensive ads. And once you do that, you'll like using Search and Gmail more.
Don't Be Evil? How About: Don't Be Stupid!
Google's motto is: "Don't be evil." And you'd think that ad transparency is a result of that creed. Maybe it is. But it's really about being smart. By co-opting users into the ad selection process, and giving them a sense of control, Google brings attention to advertisers, gathers better data on users and makes users happy not just about using the sites, but about the advertising itself.
Facebook? Not so smart. When I see the almost always irrelevant ads on Facebook, I feel powerless to change them.
Instead of a "Why these ads?" link, Facebook offers a link to "Create an Ad." Instead of "control what you see," Facebook says "give us money."
Facebook's sneaky approach to what data it gathers, and why it's showing me the ads that it does is just one more thing for the list of why I hate Facebook.
Even worst than Facebook are countless blogs and other sites that have truly repulsive wrinkle cream, weight loss and other ads that make you wanna holler. Your only recourse is to stop visiting the site.
Google is smart to pursue this avenue of user engagement around advertising. And users will be smart to participate.
In fact, the only way to improve upon this is more, more and still more. I'd love to see Google ad ever more user control of advertising.
Also: Google should roll it out to all sites, and even AdWords. Other services should get a clue and compete with Google on advertising transparence and control. And users annoyed by advertising should get in the habit of choosing the services they use in part by how much control they're given over advertising.
After all, only unwanted advertising is bad.
When ads show me the products and services that I actually want, it's a service, not a nuisance. And everybody wins. And that's just good business.