A few years ago, during Thanksgiving supper, one of my relatives asked me to explain what my job entails. Before I could launch into my SEM elevator pitch, one of my aunts jumped in and said something to the effect of “She taps into people’s privacy and harasses them with ads online.” Sure, she made the comment in jest, but I think many people share this misconception.
If you work in the search marketing industry, you’ve probably had a similar experience at one point or another. So it’s probably a good idea to familiarize yourself with the privacy issues in online advertising. This post will provide a deep dive into AdChoices, a program designed to protect internet users’ privacy and give them control over their internet usage data.
Use this table of contents to skip ahead:
- How to Get Rid of AdChoices (Disambiguation)
- History of AdChoices
- AdChoices Requirements
- How Google Uses AdChoices
- What AdChoices Means for You
- Key Takeaways
This should arm you with all the information you need next time you find yourself defending the digital marketing space.
First, a quick note on disambiguation: "AdChoices" is also the name of an adware or spyware program that can change your personal browser preferences and cause pop-up ads to display on your desktop. If you're looking to block AdChoices or remove AdChoices from your computer, try one of these resources:
You can also try installing an ad blocker program like like AdBlock for Chrome:
Long gone are the “wild west” days of the internet. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission began investigating advertising platforms that collect consumer data to use for advertising purposes. The FTC recognized a need for stricter regulations to protect consumers’ privacy rights, but instead of implementing these rules directly, it tasked industry leaders to develop a self-regulatory program. The goal of this program was simple—empower internet users to manage their own data and have more control over the ads they are shown.
The FTC’s decision was a golden opportunity for online advertisers. Rather than falling subject to heavy government regulation, they were offered a chance to define the terms of the regulations on their own. Industry leaders, such as the American Association of Advertising Agencies (the Four As), the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the American Advertising Federation (AAF), the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) joined forces and established the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising.
The Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising implemented some major changes in the digital marketing landscape, including the inception of the AdChoices program.
So, what does this program entail? It’s actually quite simple. AdChoices encourages online advertising platforms to include an advertising option icon on any ads or webpages where data is collected and used for behavioral advertising. The good news for advertisers is that this icon is fairly small and unobtrusive; most consumers don’t even notice it. If they scroll over it, a link labeled “AdChoices” will appear.
When a user clicks the icon, AdChoices triggers a pop-up that provides the consumer with more information, as well as the opportunity to opt out of interest-based ads. The format for this message varies, depending on the ad platform. Here’s an example of the message that appeared when I clicked on the AdChoices icon in the image ad above.
Google prides itself on its user-centric advertising approach. In fact, I think Google can credit its success with online advertising to this customer-centric strategy. Therefore, it should not be surprising to hear that Google is a huge proponent of the AdChoices program. When the official AdChoices icon was rolled out in 2011, Google was one of the first advertising platforms to implement it. When the change went live, this quote was published on the Inside AdSense blog: “We hope to show our support for this cross-industry initiative, and to increase our users' understanding about ad choices through adoption of an icon they'll see on ads across the web.”
Not only has Google implemented the basic requirements of AdChoices, it’s gone a few steps further. Here are a few “bells and whistles” that Google implemented to ensure users have increased control over the ads they are served:
Ad Preferences Manager
You can access your Ad Preference Manager by clicking on the AdChoices icon or heading to this link  (be sure you’re logged into the right Google account). This gives you full access to the profile Google has created for you. You can see an excerpt from mine above. Google pretty much nailed it on the basics, but they missed the mark on the interests section. Luckily, I have the opportunity to edit this and to increase the likelihood of seeing ads that are suited to my real interests.
This page also gives me the option to opt out of all interest-based ads, an appealing option for anyone concerned with protecting their privacy. This feature is particularly useful in the case of remarketing ads , which allow advertisers to “follow” past site visitors with their ads. Danny Sullivan wrote a great piece explaining how remarketing ruined Christmas  in his household, because his family knew where he’d been shopping for their gifts online. This opt-out is an easy way to prevent a similar fiasco next year.
“Mute This Ad” Button
Google introduced the “mute this ad” concept last summer to provide another level of control to users. The button typically appears alongside the AdChoice icon and, when the user clicks on it, they will no longer be served ads from that campaign.
Google’s latest brainchild, in-ad surveys, is set to be released in the coming weeks. These short, two-part surveys will appear any time an ad is muted, to better understand the user’s motivations for muting the ad. Not only will this program allow Google to gather additional data, it also shows users that Google is committed to improving their experience.
The AdChoices policy itself has a fairly minimal impact on advertisers. However, when AdChoices is paired with options like the Ad Preference Manager or in-ad surveys, consumers are encouraged to provide useful information regarding the ads they want to see. On a high level, this is beneficial to advertisers because it allows Google to create more precise interest groups. However, I’d love to see Google go the extra mile and offer additional information to advertisers.
Sharing information gleaned from muted ads could be a game changer for PPC advertisers. Consider the in-ad survey example above. Analyzing the results from this would allow advertisers to understand whether their ads simply aren’t resonating with their audience, or if they are too repetitive. Armed with this information, they will know when they need to create fresh ads or adjust their ad delivery settings.
- AdChoices is a self-regulatory program that encourages online advertising platforms to include an advertising option icon on any ads or webpages where data is collected and used for behavioral advertising.
- Google embraces user choice, and has introduced additional AdChoices options including Ad Preferences Manager, “Mute This Ad,” and in-ad surveys.
- This is great for Google, but what about advertisers? In an ideal world Google would share this data and insight with advertisers so we can improve our ads, both in terms of quality and ad delivery settings.
As an advertiser, would you want access to Google’s survey data? If so, how might you use it to improve your account? Please share your ideas in the comments section below!
Erin Sagin is a Customer Success Manager at WordStream. In addition to conducting software training and consulting calls for clients, she also helps to maintain our usability testing program. Originally from Western Maryland, Erin majored in International Studies with a concentration in Latin America and the Caribbean at Kenyon College. When she’s able to take a break from PPC, you’ll find her practicing her hula hooping skills or planning her next trip to Latin America. You can follow Erin on Twitter  and Google+ .