/ Technology

Facebook’s instant ads as you type – a step too far?

Woman typing on keyboard

Ever wondered if online advertisers can read your mind? Facebook’s instant ad targeting could certainly make it seem that way. But maybe targeted ads are a sacrifice we have to make for free online services?

You’ve just been daydreaming about a sunny and exotic holiday while idly checking your webmail and, lo and behold, up pops an ad for cut-price flights. Spooky…

You’ve just experienced targeted advertising. It happens when online ad networks use tracking tools – like cookies – to establish trends in what you’ve done and said online. You’re then shown ads based on what the ad network thinks will interest you.

Targeted ads read your mind

Historically, ad targeting has tended to be just that – historic. This means that you’ll see ads based on stuff you did a little while ago. So if you’ve just been hit by a holiday ad, chances are you were recently browsing holiday sites.

However, ever at the cutting edge of online tech, Facebook is now testing a way to instantly target ads. Facebook’s been serving up profile ads based on status updates and wall posts for a while, but that’s previously come with a delay.

Instant ads mean that you could be served up relevant ads as soon as you post. Update your status with the happy news of an imminent arrival? Don’t be surprised if your profile is suddenly overloaded with nappy ads.

I know from experience that targeted ads work on me – as a certain pair of impractical shoes testify. But instant ads arguably go a step further by targeting you when the subject’s on your mind. This system strikes me as imperfect. Let’s say you’re trying to stay on the diet wagon, but admit your pizza craving in an update. What cruel temptation to be immediately hit by ads for Dominos or Pizza Hut.

Facebook: put up with ads or pay

Reports suggest that Facebook’s instant targeting will only use publicly available posts, rather than Facebook Chat, for example. But it seems no coincidence that Facebook’s just announced a site-wide roll out of Facebook Questions – a service that lets you quickly and easily garner opinion on a topic from among your friends.

Facebook’s EU Director of Policy Richard Allan reckons targeted ads are a price users are willing to pay in exchange for a free service. He told us:

‘We need a proper cost-benefit debate. We have a community of millions of users who buy an internet connection, now in the UK very cheaply… and they get services worth hundreds of pounds a month free of charge. Most of those services are sponsored by advertisers.

‘Browsers could offer a service that doesn’t have advertising, but the logical consequence is that you then have to pay for services by subscription – that’s the only other way you can do it. At the moment that isn’t what the market wants.’

In all honesty, if I must see ads, I’d prefer relevant ones. As long as advertisers are open about their methods (there’s the rub) I’d rather have targeted ads than shell out cold hard cash.

Would instant advertising put you off Facebook? It won’t make me delete my profile in disgust – not yet, anyway. Although I’ll continue to monitor Facebook’s ongoing tweaks to its privacy small print. And it might make me be more careful about what I type…

Mac Wray says:
30 March 2011

Do Which? use Facebook ads? I think Facebook ads are less intrusive than Google ads but it’s a sign of a company trying to turn its huge database of personal info into money. Sure it’s free to use but no one is getting something for nothing here…

Ad Refusnik says:
30 March 2011

We don’t have to put up with ads – it’s possible to block them.
I use Firefox and Adblock plus keeps ’em at bay…

FB on smart phone means no ads at all, but I generally just ignore the ads when on PC.

not using FB also means no FB ads 😉

FB is clearly a market research tool, branded as a “social network”, you should really be expecting adverts, as practically all new products advertised on tv show a URL of a facebook branded website

Sophie Gilbert says:
31 March 2011

And another reason to make me glad I deleted my Facebook account. Keep them coming.