“The Search” and predicting your online behavior

I *never* proffer up my opinion (or do a review) of a book until I’m finished reading it. But over the last couple of days, I’ve read about 25% of John Batelle’s impressive new book “The Search“, and am excited about the upside and concerned about the downside of this next phase of the internet.

No question that the last several years have made me fully aware that anonymity on the internet is a myth. Privacy and trust is equally elusive and fragile. Batelle’s book does a phenomenal job of articulating what most people who “get it” already know: that the free Web services (Google, Yahoo, AskJeeves, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo-mail, Flickr, Technorati, MSN, et al) are nothing but crack cocaine to get us to use these services in exchange for enabling them to deliver HUGE value-added analytics on top of the data generated by our collective input.

Batelle starts off the book with a twist as he describes the “Database of Intention” (all of our collective intention revealed through our searches — the search strings we input, what we find relevant by clicking on it, etc.) as the heart of the value proposition of the search companies. This Database of Intention is just waiting to be mined and is being mined. Everything you do online that starts with a click from a search engine (or every email you receive on one of these free hosted services) is stored and is being analyzed, contextually understood and aligned with those who want to know you, your intention so as to predict your behavior, and ultimately to get you to cough up money (i.e., through advertising — think Google text ads, AdSense, etc.).

The upside of this is obvious: if you are interested, say, in a new HDTV plasma screen and are on-the-hunt for one, it would sure be helpful if everything relevant was suddenly at your fingertips wouldn’t it? If advertisers could target a product(s) to you, your budget, your available space to hang a screen? You’d read/watch/listen to this perfectly targeted-to-you advertisement, wouldn’t you?

One of my latest posts contains my thoughts around search matched to location (location awareness). So now if I’m at a Starbucks in Minneapolis and search for HDTV plasma screens, it’s not a stretch to have a search company display ads that are within the zip code where I’m sitting at that moment*. With mobile phones beginning to ship with Global Positioning Systems within them (allegedly for 911 geolocator services to triangulate on you if there’s an emergency — but there are darker sides to this I’ll discuss in another post), the next step is to offer services that can do the same thing but deliver this data to you wherever you are at that moment.

The dark side is the absolute potential to build a dossier on every single internet user that is a collection of your purchases, what you search on, what you read from that search, and what your intention is (Batelle gives examples of mental profiling that could be exhibited by search of, say, a serial killer or terrorist based on what their searches contain). With the Patriot Act and draconian portions that have targeted libraries, it would be trivial for the government to pressure for-profit organizations to cough up your data — and these organizations would undoubtedly rollover quickly and not fight. It also would be trivial to know where you are at any moment in time via that mobile telephony device you carry in your purse or pocket.

Even in the first 25% of the book, The Search has provided me with a clarity around the effort, energy (and accelerating market caps) of companies in search — and I’m going to finish it in the next day or so. It’s worth your time if you want to “get” what’s going on too.

*UPDATE: CNet reports that the National Security Agency has been granted a patent on determining an internet user’s physical location.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.