ICO Regulations and Google AdWords

Posted in PPC by Nicola Payne

We had a great question this week from a client asking about the impact on AdWords of the recent regulation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on the use of cookies for data collection (also known as e-privacy regulations). His question was specifically about re-targeting using the Google Display network.
If you aren’t familiar with re-targeting, it works on the Google Display network - that's the text and banner ads, like this John Lewis ad, you see when you visit websites like The Guardian and YouTube - and targets particular audiences, including those that have visited your website before. If you have ever wondered why after visiting a website once you keep seeing ads for it everywhere you go on the web, then you have triggered a re-targeting campaign.

It’s clever stuff, but for it to work a cookie collects information about visitors' activity on your website, and then uses that data to serve targeted ads. It’s also known as Behavioural Advertising as your behaviour on the web determines the kinds of ads you will see. It’s exactly this kind of advertising - one that builds a picture of you and then uses it to commercial advantage - that the EU is keen to limit.

Websites are collecting data about how you use their sites all the time and in the main they are trying to improve the user experience. Good examples are thing like ‘Recently Viewed Items’ on Amazon, or a saved shopping basket. Under the ICO regulations from 26 May 2011, every website that collects information like this is required to ask visitors to opt in to collecting their data. Have you noticed this? Me neither.

The UK’s websites have been given a year’s reprieve and won’t have to comply until May 2012. The press is full of stories about how difficult this will be to implement and the impact on users with loads of pop up opt in boxes. I imagine the industry is desperately lobbying for this regulation to die quietly as it could change our experience of the internet fairly dramatically.

Boden AdBut what about retargeting and AdWords? I have to be honest and say that although I absolutely get why re-targeting is brilliant for business, it is a little bit Big Brother. I feel stalked by Jonny Boden and James Caan and I don’t like it, and so I was particularly curious about how re-targeting would fair under the regulations.

When I asked our Google account manager the response seemed unconcerned: “at the moment remarketing is perfectly fine to use and is not violating any policy“. Looking the Google privacy policy I see I can opt out now. Currently the very fact that I’m using Google means I have opted into their terms and conditions and the onus is on me to opt-out if I have a problem with re-targeting. Looking at the ICO guidance this won’t be the case in the future.

From a potential advertiser’s perspective re-targeting should not be an issue; after all it is Google collecting the data and serving ads, not the advertiser. But what about websites serving ads using AdSense? They will need to comply with ICO regulations like everyone else and will need to take steps to inform users of how their data is being used. The Internet Advertising Bureau (the industry body for advertising on the internet) has a website dedicated to just this topic: a guide to online behavioural advertising. As a self-regulatory body their members, including Google UK , Yahoo and AOL comply with a number of Good Practice Guidelines to protect the public interest.

So the short answer to the original question is that behavioural advertising isn’t violating any policy, and advertisers are covered, at least for the moment. However, if your website is using cookies to collect information about your visitors, then read the next post about what you need to do to comply.

Nicola Payne
Nicola Payne

Managing Director at Noisy Little Monkey, Nicola posts about Google Analytics and managing marketing teams.

Meet Nicola Payne

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