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'Like' it or not, online ads are getting personal

The social media world is moving toward highly personalized ads based on your activities, relationships and profile information.
The social media world is moving toward highly personalized ads based on your activities, relationships and profile information.
  • Online advertisers targeting you based on online activity, Facebook "likes"
  • Google and Mozilla introduced ways to opt out of "behavioral advertising"
  • It seems all but inevitable that personalization is here to stay

Editor's note: Adam Ostrow is the editor in chief of

(CNN) -- Is the future of online advertising one of incredibly targeted advertising based on your interests, online activities and Facebook "likes," or is it one dictated by robust privacy controls that keep those details out of the hands of marketers?

Increasingly, it seems to depend on who you ask.

In the past week, both Google and Mozilla (the organization that makes the Firefox browser) have introduced ways to opt out of so-called behavioral advertising -- industry speak for ads that target users through the use of cookies that can track your internet browsing and shopping history, among other activities.

Google's solution is an extension for its Chrome web browser that lets users proactively block certain advertisers from serving them behavioral ads.

Mozilla's approach would bundle a "do not track" feature with its browser, but require websites and ad networks to agree to recognize such requests from Firefox users.

Microsoft has previously announced its own plans for letting users opt out of such ads.

These efforts come at a time when the Federal Trade Commission is considering a formal Do Not Track list that would work much in the same way in the online marketing realm as the Do Not Call list works in telemarketing.

They also come at a time when the social media world is moving in the direction of highly personalized ads based on your activities, relationships and profile information.

Facebook has just rolled out a feature called Sponsored Stories that lets marketers repurpose activities such as "liking" a fan page, checking into a retail store or interacting with a branded app as advertisements that users see when they log in to the social network.

And this happens automatically -- any time you interact with a brand on Facebook, your action could be used as an ad that entices your friends to do the same. For the moment, there's also no way to opt yourself out of being featured.

Facebook's not alone in this type of targeting, however. Business-focused social networking site LinkedIn has added the ability to target ads based on job titles, company name and group level, features that the company says have resulted in three to four times more clicks than standard ads during initial testing.

Meanwhile, research firm eMarketer predicts that Twitter will bring in $150 million in revenue this year, driven largely by the Promoted Tweets and Promoted Trends ads that the company introduced last year.

Much like Facebook's Supported Stories, these ads showcase users talking about a given brand, with advertisers paying upwards of $100,000 per day for the privilege.

The next logical step in all of this, it would seem, is for the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to utilize this data outside the walls of their own sites and either create their own ad networks or license their data to third parties that want to enhance their personalization capabilities.

Of course, that's even further at odds with proponents of "do not track," who are already highly critical of ads that, among other things, "retarget" you based on shopping sites you have visited.

But it seems all but inevitable that personalization is here to stay and is only going to get more intimate. Sure, a small percentage of internet users may use tools that opt them out (if such options even become available in meaningful ways), but the vast majority will continue shopping, browsing and "liking" things on the Web without a second thought.

Legislation could conceivably force advertisers to offer more in-your-face alerts about when you're sharing information that could be used in ads, but you can bet that user experience designers will be ready to create prompts that get users to click "continue," as has been the case with endless terms of service agreements and, in more recent times, Facebook applications.

Of course, that's only if it gets to that point -- most of the key players in this debate are all spending big in Washington to make sure any new regulations are as unrestrictive as possible.

Soon-to-be former Google CEO Eric Schmidt caught flak in December when he told CNBC that, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

While that might be a short-sighted way of looking at the current debate on online privacy, it does represent a reality of where things are headed, especially within the advertising realm. As users, the smartest path for now may simply be to heed Schmidt's advice.


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