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The closure of Yahoo Mail Classic has led to bad publicity for the company as the Internet became outraged over the scanning of private emails to serve targeted ads. (This is basically the same thing that Microsoft launched a whole campaign against Google for doing, welcome to the 21st century, people.)
Scanning and serving up targeted ads can hardly be considered a shady tactic by Yahoo, especially when they were clear about the ad tracking in their notice of closure and explained everything on their FAQ page. Yahoo even goes so far as to define Keyword:
Our automated systems scan and analyze all incoming and outgoing communications content sent and received from your account to detect certain words and phrases (we call them “keywords”) within these communications. This might result in ads being shown to you in Mail for products and services that are related to those keywords.
There are two schools of thought with ad trackers. The first comes from the depths of Reddit, Tumblr or Twitter: “The man is following our every move, robots are telling us what we like and dislike, we need to go off the grid and keep the government and/or greedy corporations out of our emails.” This side of the argument tends to be more watered down to a moderate level of annoyance at Sponsored Stories on Facebook or retargeting pixels from searching airfare. Both the presence of the ads and their relevance are offensive to users.
Martin Bryant of The Next Web leads the second school of thought regarding targeted ads in his article about Facebook Home. Everywhere you go on the Internet, you are being followed. Your movements are being tracked so that websites and advertisers can offer you their products. If ads are a part of life, shouldn’t we embrace algorithms that try and make them more relevant? We all have to see ads anyway, let’s at least see them for products that we actually need or want.
Yahoo has already embraced Bryant’s theory and created an Ad Interest Manager page. Users can opt-in and opt-out of categories that they’re interested in. They start with generic categories (Entertainment, Apparel, Sports) and move into deeper sub-topics (Cleaning Supplies, Undergarments, Joint Pain). With the opt-in option, if a user searches for phrases like “how to change a tire” they won’t be plagued with ads for tire brands for the next several months unless they clear their cookies. They’ll continue to see the sports ads they signed up for.
For those who don’t want to tell Yahoo what they’re interested in, there are options. They can opt-out of interested-based ads and the email scanning entirely, which means that in lieu of personalized ads they will see generic banners not specific to any particular niche.
If users start to embrace the idea that ads are part of the Internet and start choosing what they want to see, then marketers can get better at reaching the right audiences and increasing ad conversions. Soon we will be out of the dark Internet ages of horrible flashing banner ads and pop-ups advertising “singles looking to chat” and enter the era of relevant Internet advertising.