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September 25, 2008

Yahoo! APT (formerly AMP!) emerges blinking into the sunlight

apt_logo_150x76 Well, they said it would launch in Q3, and it has – yesterday Yahoo! unveiled its new ad management platform, called APT, at a razzamatazz-filled event in New York introduced by John Hamm, star of Mad Men (currently the topic of much debate in our house as to its merits).

APT started life as “Project APEX”, which Jerry Yang started to talk about around a year ago as a successor/complement to Panama (Yahoo’s search ad platform, properly known as Yahoo Search Marketing). Yahoo then pre-announced something called AMP! (Ad Management Platform) in March, saying that it would revolutionize the way that ad media was bought and sold, drastically simplifying the selling process for publishers in particular. And yesterday AMP!’s name had changed again, to APT. APT does not appear to stand for anything, but at least they have dropped the exclamation point.

So what is APT? Well, according to Yahoo, it’s “designed to simplify the process of buying and selling ads online while connecting all the market players -- publishers, advertisers, agencies, networks, partners and developers -- from a unified platform to do business more efficiently and effectively”.

However, in its first incarnation, APT is principally a tool for publishers, aiming to make it easier for them to respond to advertiser/agency RFPs, and allowing them to build ad hoc private networks in order to be able to re-sell other publishers’ inventory. This latter capability is strongly linked to the initial user base for AMP, which is Yahoo’s Newspaper Consortium [PDF] members. The Newspaper Consortium is a sort of hybrid advertising and content network. Two members of this network – the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News – are founding customers of APT.

 

APT for publishers

According to the blurb on the APT site, APT will bring the following benefits for publishers:

  • Simplified workflow (creative management, campaign management)
  • Analytics & yield optimization (inventory management & prediction)
  • Increased inventory liquidity through cross-selling abilities and integration with Right Media Exchange
  • Extensibility via web services & an API
  • Access to Yahoo!’s expertise (creative development, targeting, etc)

The only screenshot available is of the APT dashboard, which looks fairly nice, but doesn’t reveal that much about the functionality of the system (click the image to view it full-size):

apt_dashboard

There are also some more tidbits in the video which Yahoo release in April during the original AMP announcement.

Of the announced functionality, the ‘cross-selling’ capabilities in APT are some of the most interesting, representing a twist on the network model. Rather than running a traditional network where the publisher members give a certain portion of their inventory to a centrally managed hub, with APT, publishers can buy and sell inventory directly to and from one another. This will likely mean that publishers can get a better price for that inventory than if they sold it at remnant prices. If APT does a good job of this, it will make publishers’ lives much easier, and deliver a much-needed fillip to their revenues.

SImilarly, APT – by integrating with Yahoo’s Right Media Exchange (RMX) – could attract networks to work with Yahoo/RMX by offering a new pool of inventory that those networks could resell.

 

What about advertisers and agencies?

imageWhere APT’s value is less clear to me is as a tool for advertisers and agencies. APT will provide a one-stop-shop for buying inventory on Yahoo’s properties and those of its publisher partners (i.e. the Newspaper Consortium folks) – and, given Yahoo’s strength in behavioral targeting, should be able to offer innovative inventory packages and highly targeted buying. But do advertisers and agencies need another interface for buying ads? These organizations would prefer to buy their media through the third-party ad server solutions (DoubleClick and Atlas, mostly) that they already use. Already they face fragmentation in their buying systems for search, contextual, display and rich media advertising – another tool may add to the pain, not ease it.

This may seem like a biased comment (since Atlas is now part of Microsoft), but in fact Microsoft faces the same kinds of challenge as we evolve our advertising platform. Our adCenter product offers a web UI for buying advertising (mostly search and contextual, with display coming), but larger advertisers prefer to interact with it indirectly through its APIs. And this – rather than a ‘one-stop-shop’ buying UI – is how I think APT will end up interacting with advertisers and agencies. Sensibly, Yahoo seems to have appreciated this, since a big part of its APT story is its extensibility through third-party integration.

in conclusion, if APT can create a more transparent network buying experience, and at the same time enable publishers to gain more control over how their inventory is sold, then it will definitely be a Good Thing for the industry – and for Yahoo, as it looks to position itself against Google and Microsoft. It’s going to be interesting to see how APT develops.

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September 16, 2008

Phorm gets the all-clear from the UK Goverment (kinda)

[Update 10/1/08: BT has announced that it will commence a new trial with Phorm to start September 30 in the UK. The trial, in accordance with the conditions below, is opt-in]

 

phorm_logo Beleaguered behavioral targeting outfit Phorm appears finally to have caught a bit of a lucky break - the UK Government has (belatedly) responded to the EU's queries about Phorm's business practices by saying that Phorm does not break EU data collection/retention laws. But the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) - the Government department tasked with assessing Phorm's business and responding to the EU - has placed the following conditions on its approval (from an excerpt of the full letter sent to the EU which is reproduced on The Register - my highlighting added):

  • The user profiling occurs with the knowledge and agreement of the customer.
  • The profile is based on a unique ID allocated at random which means that there is no need to know the identity of the individual users.
  • Phorm does not keep a record of the actual sites visited.
  • Search terms used by the user and the advertising categories exclude certain sensitive terms and have been widely drawn so as not to reveal the identity of the user.
  • Phorm does not have nor want information which would enable it to link a user ID and profile to a living individual.
  • Users will be presented with an unavoidable statement about the product and asked to exercise a choice about whether to be involved.
  • Users will be able to easily access information on how to change their mind at any point and are free to opt in or out of the scheme.

The two key bullets here are the last two - Phorm will be required to operate this service as an opt-in service only, with clear language and functionality enabling even opted-in users to opt out at any time. And  BERR states that it will be keeping a close eye on Phorm to ensure that it continues to comply with these conditions.

The news may do a little to shore up Phorm's deflating stock price, which has lost about 80% of its value since the heady days of March. But it's hard to imagine Phorm building much of a sustainable business on the back of an opt-in only system - it's going to be an incredibly hard sell for the ISPs that Phorm partners with (BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media being the only ones mentioned so far). The only model I can think of is that the ISPs offer reduced rates in exchange for opting into the targeting system; but that negates the very purpose of implementing the system in the first place - to shore up sagging ISP revenues in the wake of the last few years' broadband price wars. I fear that Phorm is not out of the woods yet - especially if the recent happenings at its competitor NebuAd are anything to go by.

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September 11, 2008

Yahoo updates IndexTools terms & conditions

safe Yahoo is not letting the grass grow under its feet with its integration of IndexTools. Today IndexTools partners received an e-mail from Yahoo informing them of a change to the terms & conditions of the service, which need to be agreed to by October 15 in order to retain access to IndexTools.

The e-mail calls out a change to the Ts & Cs which require IndexTools partner customers (i.e. the site owners themselves) to place the following (or equivalent) language on their websites (my highlighting):

“Third-Party Web Beacons: We use third-party web beacons from Yahoo! to help analyze where visitors go and what they do while visiting our website. Yahoo! may also use anonymous information about your visits to this and other websites in order to improve its products and services and provide advertisements about goods and services of interest to you. If you would like more information about this practice and to know your choices about not having this information used by Yahoo!, click here.”

Yahoo goes on to say that it will be auditing client sites and will disable accounts where this verbiage has not been included on the site (I wonder how effective this will be in practice - it may just be sabre-rattling).  Partners and client sites have until October 15 to comply.

The comment from the IndexTools partner who forwarded on this information was that it would be a challenge for their clients to implement this - from a logistical perspective, if nothing else. But I can understand Yahoo's move here - part of the benefit of a company like Yahoo (or Microsoft, or Google) offering a web analytics service is the secondary use of the resulting data for ad targeting purposes (something that Yahoo is very good at).

For comparison, here is (a shortened version of) the paragraph that Google requests its customers insert onto their sites:

“[...]  Google Analytics uses “cookies”, which are text files placed on your computer, to help the website analyze how users use the site. [...] Google will use this information for the purpose of evaluating your use of the website, compiling reports on website activity for website operators and providing other services relating to website activity and Internet usage.  Google may also transfer this information to third parties where required to do so by law, or where such third parties process the information on Google's behalf. Google will not associate your IP address with any other data held by Google. [...]  By using this website, you consent to the processing of data about you by Google in the manner and for the purposes set out above.”

This wording does not seem to imply that Google will reuse the data for other purposes, including ad targeting (IANAL, however); though Google did introduce some reuse of data (and some options for controlling it) with their data sharing feature that they launched back in March.

The corresponding paragraph from adCenter Analytics is:

Microsoft may retain and use user data subject to the terms of the Microsoft privacy statement and publish in aggregate or average form such information in combination with information collected from others’ use of adCenter Analytics except that Microsoft will not disclose to any third parties any user data collected by adCenter Analytics from your websites in a manner that (i) contains or reveals any personally-identifiable information or (ii) is specifically attributable to you or your websites.

The Microsoft privacy statement does say that we may use the information we collect to deliver services, "including personalized content and advertising".

So Yahoo is not doing anything here that hasn't been done before; and, as I've said several times before, you can't expect a company to provide a free web analytics service of the quality of IndexTools and not attempt to monetize it in some way. What is a little different about Yahoo's approach, though, is that it's taking a sterner line on actual implementation of the data reuse language, and actually threatening to disable accounts where the wording hasn't been added. This implies that Yahoo anticipates that it may need to defend its usage of this data (at least from a PR perspective), and wants to ensure that it can point to this wording on any site that uses IndexTools, so that users can't complain that their behavior data is being reused without their consent.

[Update 9/11/08: Added a reference to Google data sharing]

[Update 9/12/08: Corrected IndexTools' name - duh]

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September 02, 2008

Internet Explorer 8 beta 2: Privacy vs Monetizability

image Once upon a time, when I was a young turk, I would assiduously download every last doodad that my employer created as soon as it shipped - or often long before, happily reaching for the pile of floppy disks as I rebuilt my computer for the umpteenth time following the latest toxic combination of untested software.

Age (and a need to still be able to work on my computer) has slowed me down. So I passed over IE8 beta 1, preferring to read about others' experiences of the new "standards mode" that is the default rendering mode for the new browser.

But last week, only hours after its public availability, I downloaded and installed IE8 beta 2. Why? Because it contains a raft of new features for protecting user privacy. I've blogged previously about the eternal tension between user privacy on the web, and the measurement and tracking that is so essential to many websites' business models. Put simply, if users' behavior could not be measured online, a lot of online businesses would go out of business.

 

What's new?

So how does IE8 contribute to the debate? Well, there are a number of minor features to protect users, and one major one. The minor ones include a nice feature in the address bar to highlight the actual domain of the site you're looking at:

image

This makes it much easier to spot phishing attacks, since many phishing sites try to confuse users by including familiar looking domains as subdomains of the real site, e.g.:

http://www.barclays.co.uk.evildomain.com/...

Another nice feature, related to phishing, is the "Smartsite Filter". This allows the user to check the current website against a known list of bad sites.It's essentially a UI into the automatic phishing filter that was built into IE7  - but it allows users to report sites as well as check them, adding a Cloudmark-like element of user contribution to the process of spotting evil sites.

This feature is rolled up under a new Safety menu, which also contains options to view the privacy policy info for a site (which shows all the cookies that were served and/or blocked, per IE7), and the security report for a site (any problems with the site's SSL certificate etc). Neither of these features is new, but it's nice to see them called out in their own menu.

The other small enhancement worth noting is that the "browsing history deletion" feature has become smarter - you can elect to delete the cookies etc. for all sites except those in your favorites list. This is a step forward, but it still mystifies me that IE has no easy way for browsing the cookies (and their content) on your computer, and selectively deleting them (as Firefox has had since v2, it pains me to say).

 

InPrivate Browsing & Blocking

The big new security/privacy feature in IE8 is called InPrivate Browsing (others have dubbed it "porn mode", but I am above such lewdness). InPrivate Browsing allows the user to browse without storing any cookies or browsing history, or locally cached files. It's good for when you're borrowing someone else's computer, or if you share a computer and don't want the other people who use the computer to know what you've been up to (now you are starting to understand where the "porn mode" nickname comes from).

The naming of the InPrivate functionality is somewhat confusing. Once you turn on InPrivate Browsing (either from the Safety menu or using Ctrl+Shift+P), something called InPrivate Blocking is also activated. InPrivate Blocking prevents your browser from sending requests for third-party content that it thinks are principally for the purpose of tracking your behavior. The big difference here is that this isn't just blocking third-party cookies - it's third-party content. That's tracking pixels, third-party JS calls, and yes, ads.

InPrivate Blocking will block third-party requests if one of the two following conditions have been met:

  • The request URL has been made in a third-party context on more than 10 other domains
  • You have specifically added the request URL through an InPrivate Blocking Subscription

To understand the first condition, take a look at the screenshot below, which is the dialog that comes up if you select InPrivate Blocking from the Safety menu when InPrivate Browsing is active:

image

You'll notice that there are some third-party request URLs that come up, well, a lot. googleadsyndication.com is the domain that Google AdSense ads are served from; and you will doubtless know what comes from google-analytics.com. In the dialog above, the four URLs across these two sites have each been requested at least 20 times in a third-party context, and I've only been using IE8 for a few days. With the default settings ("Automatically block"), these URLs are blocked when I am in InPrivate mode.

The other way of adding a URL to the blocked list is to subscribe to an InPrivate Blocking list. This is an RSS or Atom feed of URLs that IE8 should block in InPrivate mode. I have created a subscription list which blocks third-party requests to analytics.live.com - the domain for adCenter Analytics's tracking JS and pixel. You can try it out by clicking here.

The power of the feed-based approach to InPrivate Blocking is that privacy advocacy sites can post a single link to a feed XML file which users subscribe to; if that file changes, the users' blocking lists change. So you can expect to find "click here to block ALL tracking pixels and ads" links on such sites in the not-too-distant future. You can take a look at your InPrivate Subscriptions through the Manage Add-ons option in the Tools menu:

image

 

"Aargh! This sucks!"/"Great!" [Delete as applicable]

Whether news of this functionality sends a shiver down your spine or warms the cockles of your heart depends on whether your business depends on online advertising or web analytics. Popular third-party analytics systems like Google Analytics, or third-party ad servers like Atlas Enterprise will lose data on users who enable InPrivate Browsing; and even a less popular service that might not normally be blocked automatically could end up on common "Opt-out" feeds and have its tracking blocked, especially if had a poor reputation for privacy.

I must admit that when I first read of this functionality, I was - ahem - a little apprehensive, for the reasons above. And in truth, only time will tell what proportion of users are engaging InPrivate browsing (although, given the nature of the functionality, we'll not be gathering this data). But my gut feel is that, whilst this capability is a welcome addition to the privacy and security arsenal of Internet Explorer, actual take-up of the feature will be low. It needs to be invoked explicitly, of course, and the blocking of persistent cookies means that some desirable features of websites (such as being able to remember you from visit to visit) will be disabled. So I imagine it will be used sparingly by the vast majority of users.

Even so, this feature could easily add another 1 - 2% to the existing disparity between different measurement systems (such as an in-house web analytics system and a third-party ad server). Though there are techniques that vendors could use to work around the automatic blocking - the best example being the use of CNAME DNS entries to make the third-party tracking URLs look like first-party URLs - these techniques will add complexity to the implementation of such systems; so it might be easier for us all to live with a little less certainty.

 

If you'd like to read more about the new features in IE8, there's a ton of stuff over at the IE blog. And, with my Microsoft hat firmly on my head, I should say that the IE team has done an outstanding job with this beta, which is performing really well for me, and rendering most sites flawlessly, with just a few slight layout differences cropping up here and there. Well done, guys.

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