On Behavioral Targeting

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On Wednesday, ClickZ reported on Return Path’s (relatively) new behavioral targeting functionality. Inasmuch as I work at Return Path and am one of the people who worked on designing this tool, I’m really happy to see it out there in the wild and getting some attention; as regular readers have come to expect, however, there are a few additional thoughts that I want to toss out there.

The first is an observation that I would have though was obvious: behavioral targeting is a technique that can be applied to many advertising products. The title of the ClickZ article is “Behavioral Targeting Applied to E-Mail,” which seems to imply that this is a weird, radical idea; given that marketers have been applying behavioral targeting to every ad mechanism that they possibly can for decades, adding email to that list doesn’t seem like a great leap forward. Not to say that it’s easy to do, of course, but the idea of applying behavioral to email doesn’t strike me as revolutionary.

There probably isn’t much reason to be surprised by this view, though, when you consider a report from eMarketer (found via Fred Wilson’s post) that shows “behavioral targeting” being compared to things like “email house lists,” “text link ads,” and “popups.” Behavioral targeting is…well, targeting, which must be applied to something; that something may be email house lists, text link ads, or, um, popups …sigh…

The second item on our menu for the day is a couple of thoughts on behavioral targeting itself. As the attention given to behavioral targeting increases, we can expect to see lots and lots of people offering it in one flavor or another. The question then becomes: what exactly do you mean when you’re talking about behavioral targeting?

The most obvious approach to BT is also the weakest: somebody has responded to a travel ad, so you flag them as a “travel responder.” You then throw travel ads at them wherever they go, hoping that they’re actually planning another trip soon. Not so good. Maybe they clicked on that travel ad because their grandmother was looking for a cheap flight, maybe they’ve burned through all their vacation time for the year and won’t be travelling again until 2007…you just don’t know.

That’s the weird, counter-intuitive thing about behavioral targeting: in order to target more effectively to individual people, you have to look at groups of people. That’s why god invented statistics. If you’re looking at a single individual it’s really hard to accurately predict what they’re going to do until you have a huge amount of data about what they’ve already done.

On the other hand, it takes somewhat less data to decide what groups that individual belongs to; if you get your groups correct (which, again, isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do), you can then predict with a mathematically defined degree of confidence how I might behave when presented with a travel advertisement, even if you have no information on how I personally have reacted to travel ads before.

As a final note, it’s critical to remember that none of this means that the people who are collecting the data know better than that actual people on the receiving end what is appropriate and interesting. Ideally (as in the case of PMD/RP’s behavioral targeting), BT is a technique that supplements — not replaces — targeting based on people’s explicit requests for information.

Stupid Little Things

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With Bill Gates’ recent affirmation of Microsoft’s “interoperability pledge” and the “MS Office formats are open…hey, wait, no they’re not” discussion in the news recently, the questions surrounding open file formats have been bouncing around my head.

These questions ended up bouncing off of a passage that I recently read in Paul Blustein’s The Chastening: Inside the Crisis That Rocked the Global Financial System and Humbled the IMF — which is well worth reading, by the way. Blustein managed to write a dramatic, exciting book on macroeconomics and global economic policymaking. Seriously.

The passage appears as Blustein is describing the many logistical difficulties that plagued the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank teams while working on the 1997 Indonesia bailout:

To make matters worse, the word-processing software the IMF used was WordPerfect, but the sofware in the World Bank laptops was Microsoft Word, so the two institutions’ computer systems couldn’t easily exchange files and documents — a perfect metaphor for their broader breakdown in communications.

As Blustein points out, this wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle, but it was one more stupid little thing that made difficult and stressful work even more difficult and stressful.

In the current discussions surrounding open document formats, it’s important to remember that no one is suggesting that the tools used to create documents should be open sourced, just that the resulting documents be stored in a known, public, open format, to ensure that the documents can be used by everyone who needs them.

It’s easy, these days, to forget that this can be an issue: pretty much everybody has reverse-engineered everybody else’s document formats, and many documents are exchanged, transfored, and transformed back between formats without our noticing. All it takes is one stupid little thing, though — a change in one of those proprietary file formats, or an essential chart, document revision, or calculation that doesn’t translate well, and we’re right back to printing everything out and carrying it across the street.

Visualize This: A Convergence of Mini-memes

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John Battelle yesterday posted on FlickrGraph and TagSurf, a couple of the more recent visualization and tagging related thingamajigs to gain popular attention. Is there anything that isn’t being visually represented by the TouchGraph engine now?

Possibly. What I’d like to see is a convergence of mini-memes*: take this “TouchGraph visualization of whatever” meme, and combine it with a variation on the Bloglines “related feed” meme that was floating around a few weeks ago.

This would be really, really interesting: I don’t care what blogs are linking to what other blogs — we all know how curiously incestuous the various corners of the blogosphere are — but to be able to see the overlap between the readership of different blogs? A visual representation of who shares readers? That I want to see.

So…can anybody point me in the right direction for this, or do I need to get off my lazy ass and…well, find someone to do it for me? I am lazy, after all…

* D’oh. A quick Google search reveals that I’m not the first person to come up with this clever little turn of phrase. Oh, well.

You Old-fashioned “Web browser” People Can Stop Bugging Me

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In honor of Matt’s first dip into the pool of taxonomic goodness that is del.icio.us — and so that you “what is this RSS crap” naysayers will stop bugging me about it — I’ve updated the Sea Monkey Rodeo template to include my ten most recent del.icio.us bookmarks in that right-hand column thing.

If I’ve remembered crontab syntax correctly, they should be updating every hour. If not…well, we’ll just see how it goes, won’t we? Enjoy.

The Candle a Saint

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Green is the night, green kindled and apparelled.
It is she that walks among astronomers.

She strides above the rabbit and the cat,
Like a noble figure, out of the sky,

Moving among the sleepers, the men,
Those that lie chanting green is the night.

Green is the night and out of madness woven,
The self-same madness of the astronomers

And of him that sees, beyond the astronomers,
The topaz rabbit and the emerald cat,

That sees above them, that sees rise up above them,
The noble figure, the essential shadow,

Moving and being, the image at its source,
The abstract, the archaic queen. Green is the night.

– Wallace Stevens

absono.us

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Absonous
\Ab”so*nous\, a. [L. absonus; ab + sonus sound.] Discordant; inharmonious; incongruous. [Obs.] “Absonous to our reason.” –Glanvill.

…which more or less accurately describes my state of mind, as alienabductions.com is still down and the owner of the machine still MIA. I am taking a first step towards restoring order by my life by starting the long and painful shift to using an email domain over which I have direct control. If you want or need to email me, you can use “whitney” or “seamonkey” at absono.us. If you know anyone who’s been complaining about how I ignore their emails but doesn’t read this blog, please let them know.

Ugh.

I’m Sorry, Dave…

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or, what are Turing tests trying to tell us?

On Monday, I learned that a CAPTCHA implementation used by at least one blog hosting company (to prevent comment spam) was beaten — thanks, Scott.

That same day I also learned of a proposed anti-spam system that makes heavy use of a CAPTCHA system with 3-D images (the ability to apply different lighting effects to a 3-D model allows for a very large number of images that are all recognizably the same object to a human, but very different images to a machine).

As CAPTCHA stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart,” these posts got me thinking about Turing tests in a more general way. When Turing wrote Computing Machinery and Intelligence in 1950, it was as a framework for considering what “intelligence” is, whether machines can be intelligent, and if so, whether an intelligent machine necessarily has to “think” in the same way that a human being thinks. In interesting area to explore, to say the least.

That said, I just can’t get past the fact that in 2005 the most common use of Turing tests is not to determine whether or how machines might be intelligent, but rather to force people to prove that they’re human. Our culture, and our technology, appear to have moved in a direction very different from that which Turing envisioned…