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The all-seeing eye

March 22, 2008

The fact that as you read the web the web reads you has been obvious since Mark Zuckerberg was in short pants. The ability of cookies, algorithms and other software to discern, at light speed, your identity, desires, and intentions lies at the heart of the web's attractiveness as a commercial medium, and pushing that ability forward is critical to the competitiveness of web firms, particularly those serving up search results and ads.

A patent issued to Google this week - and noted by Slashdot - sheds light on one area where the search giant is hoping to enhance its ability to "read the user." The patent covers a set of techniques for, as the authors cumbersomely put it, "rendering advertisements with documents having one or more topics using user topic interest." Google recognizes that web pages or other online documents often have many sections and include many topics. The resulting ambiguity about what a viewer is looking at or is interested in complicates the placement of relevant ads on the page. An ad may be tied to a section or topic that is of little interest to the viewer and thus fails to capture his attention.

What Google has patented is a way to decipher which page regions and topics the viewer is interested in based on the viewer's behavior after he's arrived at the page. (Typically, ads are served based on the user's behavior before he arrives at a page.) The patent's scope, in defining the elements of behavior, is broad, even open-ended: "Examples of user behavior include (a) cursor positioning, (b) cursor dwell time, (c) document item (e.g., link, control button, etc.) selection, (d) user eye direction relative to the document, (e) user facial expressions, (f) user expressions, and/or (g) express user input (e.g., increasing the volume of an audio segment), etc." Any of these actions could be used to trigger the placement of an ad or the replacement of one ad with another, as illustrated in the following figure from the patent.


This is yet another example of a patent that appears to cover a very broad range of analytical techniques. More interesting, though, is how it points to an expansion in the ways web companies will be able to, in effect, read our minds. Should the Google methods be implemented - and I don't doubt they will, in some form - our computers won't just feed back to companies information about what we click on or where we move our cursors but also, thanks to the ubiquitous webcam, information about our "facial expressions" as we peruse a page. We all have our tell-tales, the tics that give us away, and once you digitize them and run them through an algorithm, they're pure gold.


The Situationists already in the 50's knew that the market society exploits our feelings, desires and attention and redirects them to products. We'll see more and more tricks in order to hook us into buying. Creating life alternatives and becoming again masters of our weakened and scattered attention was and still is the way out.

Posted by: Ivo [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 01:33 AM

You can't overstate it, Nick. I don't mean you ought not or will suffer if you do. I mean, there is no way for it to be overstated.


Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 03:04 PM

The patent shows a lack of imagination and insight. In this patent, Google are treating the Internet as a "flat space" of pages rather than the highly linked and inter-connected network of pages. Like the neurons of the brain, it is this inter-linking of pages that gives web pages contextual meaning outside their content. As the flow diagram shows, the linear algorithm assumes that content of a page alone determines the best type of ads to be displayed regardless of how the surfer got to the particular page. The path of links that a surfer uses to get to a particular page seems to me to give a lot more contextual information about the kind of ads that should be displayed.

For example, suppose I am on travel magazine looking at an article on Tahiti, then I follow a link to Polynesian Airlines. According to their algorithm, they would only be putting up ads based on the static content of the airline page. However, the context of the jump from a travel magazine to an airline might indicate the surfer is interested in a vacation and the kind of ads displayed should be related to Tahitian vacations.

Aside from the lack of dimensional thinking on the part of the engineers, the software necessary to track user mouse movements and etc. amounts to allowing Google to putting spyware on users computers. Move over Big Brother – here comer Big Google: Google is Watching You!

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 11:28 AM

Given the conversations about privacy and who is watching users, I wonder if you would comment, Nick, on the article in the Globe and Mail discussing the Patriot Act and its implications for privacy where Google is concerned. I refer to the Slashdot article posted this afternoon that mentions it.

Posted by: wmackenz [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 09:52 PM

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