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More on Google

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 15, 2004
(Issue 2220, Notebooks on the Desktop)

Last week, we looked at Google's new Gmail and the ruckus its content-targeted advertising was causing among the self-proclaimed "privacy rights" crowd.

But Google already uses this technology – the ability to micro-target advertising based on the content – with its Adsense program.

You've probably run across at least one site that features the text-based Google Adsense advertising. Some pretty big outfits are using them – including and

The Adsense software works by analyzing the words on the page the ad is located, and then streaming ads that have some sort of relationship to the content. So if you're reading Eric Clapton's biography on, you might see ads for a record store having a sale on Clapton CDs.

The other interesting aspect of the Adsense program is it also uses the I.P. address of the person viewing the page (provided by your Web browser to the Google servers) to search for ads of businesses located near you geographically. So if you're living in L.A., and viewing a Web page in Florida about water sports, you might see a Google ad for a water ski rental company in Long Beach.

That's the same technology being applied in Gmail.

Two-faced on the issue

It is, in fact, more than a little hypocritical for the "privacy" crowd to whine about Gmail and Adsense when they've often been the ones demanding software that can analyze the content of our e-mail.

Take anti-virus and anti-spam filters, for instance.

Privacy advocates have been at the forefront of demanding methods for end users to shield themselves from spam. Of course, the sorts of Volvo-driving, NPR-listening yuppies who are most apt to contribute to privacy organizations so that privacy "experts" can avoid getting real jobs also seem to react reflexively to anything that smacks of infringing on free speech.

So while the general public has been demanding – and getting – new laws designed to make it easier to stop spam at the sending end of things, privacy and free-speech activists have generally opposed that as some sort of Big Brother censorship.

Instead, they tout the benefits of technology, which puts the power in the hands of individuals, rather than the government.

But that technology – again, anti-spam filters – can only work by checking your incoming e-mail for specific content and blocking the ones that meet the criteria.

Thus, if an e-mail contains the word "Viagra" and is sent by someone not in your address book, it's unlikely to make it all the way to your in-box.

Anti-virus software, too, has to open up e-mail attachments in order to protect us from the automated Melissa-style viruses out there.

We not only accept it, we demand it.

Privacy vs. anonymity

Part of the problem in the uproar over Google's Gmail and Adsense programs is confusion between privacy and anonymity. Too many privacy activists are really advocating in favor of full anonymity – which isn't the same as privacy, and perhaps isn't even healthy for a free and open society.

Privacy doesn't mean that you pass through life unknown; it means that people and the government respect your space.

The above technology can do that. Google's Adsense program doesn't care who you are personally; it cares what content you're interested in and what general area you live in. And it only cares about these so it can expose you to advertising that you are most likely to respond to.

Yes, that's a base and materialistic concern. News flash: We live in an economy built around base and materialistic motives.

Besides, nobody at Google is sitting ther analyzing pages for Adsense – it's done by Google's servers, automated to find keywords on a page and match them with keywords in an ad.

Oh the home front

Having thought about all this over the past few weeks, I've decided to add the Google Adsense ads to my personal Web site,, as well as an ezine I publish,

Did I do this because I don't respect the privacy of my visitors?

Or did I do it because posting the archive of this column and my CD reviews costs me a pretty penny in hosting fees and I'd like to maybe generate enough revenue from the 8,000 visitors I get each month to pay those hosting fees?

Okay, that's not really an either/or question.

But I do respect the privacy of my visitors, and so does Google. They don't track individual I.P. addresses, and they only store data in aggregate.

They've been upfront about this technology, its usage, and their privacy policies from the very beginning. It was Google itself that pointed out that both the Adsense and Gmail programs are built around a trade-off – advertising income and/or free e-mail, in exchange for being exposed to advertising.

I'm also being upfront about this trade-off.

Previous issues of this column at are among the most popular pages on my site; I like being able to provide them to you, but at $25/month in hosting fees per domain, it's a bit pricey. If I can make some of that back through Adsense, then it only means that this is a service I can provide that much longer.

If that offends you, then perhaps you shouldn't visit.

You've been warned.