What Should Google, Yahoo, MSN, IAC et. al do about the mortgage mess: Change their ad-selling ways

The search engines must review their policies accepting mortgage and financial ads related to consumer credit. Companies such as Interactive Corp.–which own both a search engine and a financial services company (in this case Ask and LendingTree.com)–also must re-examine how they conduct their business promoting mortgages and other credit. It’s all too easy for search engines to say, we just are selling the ads. But the financial sector, notes clickz, accounts for around 17% of the online ad market. There is a national tragedy here for many Americans, and the online ad industry has to own up to its role. Search engines need to do a better job investigating these companies to make sure they are offering financial services that are fair and not morally usurious. Google, Yahoo, AOL, MSN and major online platforms–especially those that allowed such ads to run– should also support national legislation aiding those Americans who now find themselves facing eviction. The online ad industry should voluntarily create a bail-out fund as well, returning some of its profits it earned.

Where is the moral leadership in the online ad industry? Which CEO at what search engine, ad industry trade group, or online financial marketer will stand-up and say: we must do better.

PS: It’s worth reading clickz’s Anna Maria Virzi’s piece published today on “What Does the Mortgage Meltdown Mean for Online Advertising?” Especially the last few grafs.

PPS: Here’s a perceptive analysis from Feb. 2007 on the role of Google, Yahoo!, etc and online mortgage ads [excerpt]: “As you are aware, Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO) have cashed in big time from the mortgage boom. Direct lenders, conventional banks and lead aggregators like Lending Tree, Nextag and LowerMyBills.com have all paid top dollar to drive online traffic to their site. Keywords like “mortgage” and “refinance” have gone for as high as $20 to $30 per click during peak times…Mortgage companies…have all been heavy contributors to Google’s coffers. Yahoo too, but not as much as Google.”

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Behavioral Targeting Coming to Cable, Via Time Warner?

Time Warner recently acquired behavioral targeting firm Tacoda, in order to expand the data collection and targeting capabilities of AOL and the company’s other online properties. It seems Time Warner wants to also deploy Tacoda technology onto its vast cable network as well, raising serious privacy concerns. Here’s an excerpt from a new interview on imediaconnection with Tacoda founder Dave Morgan, who’s now helping Time Warner better use BT technologies. He was asked whether “Tacoda’s technology can be applied to the cable platform.”

He replied [my italics]:  “We do believe that BT will be applied to cable networks and we have built our business and our technology with that future in mind. What we do on the PC we certainly intend to do for the TV.”

Dow Jones Conflict Watch: Murdoch, WPP, China Broadband

Just for the record, we want to highlight this Telegraph (UK) story about ad giant WPP investing in China Broadband Capital Partners [via the ever vigilant folks at paidcontent.org]. Here’s an excerpt about Murdoch:
“Co-investors in the China Broadband fund include Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns MySpace and holds a stake in the social networking site’s embryonic Chinese operation, and China Netcom, one of the country’s two major state-owned fixed-line operators. PCCW, the Hong Kong-based media group, is also an investor in the fund…China Broadband’s most significant investment to date was its acquisition of a stake in MySpace China, which has yet to be formally launched. A beta version of the site was unveiled in April, and News Corp has not disclosed any details about its performance.”

How can the good journalists at the WSJ and Dow Jones ever hope to really tackle the issues involving Murdoch’s holdings and relationships? They will try, but probably can’t sustain it in the long run. Let’s keep an eye, meanwhile, on News Corp, WPP and the China connection. The Chinese people have a lot at stake about who controls their media future, especially when it combines state control with hyper-commercialization.

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Will Political Candidates & Campaigns Protect Privacy and Not Embrace Behavioral Targeting?

The digital media system permits unprecedented opportunities to collect data about individual voters and target them with more precise ads. Recently, the behavioral targeting firm Blue Lithium launched what it calls a “Voter Network.” Here’s what its press release said [excerpt]: “The BlueLithium Voter Network is powered by the same advanced technologies that are widely used by brand marketers to influence consumer buying behavior. Political and issue-oriented campaigns now have the ability to leverage behavioral, demographic and geographic targeting to reach the most receptive and persuadable voters as they visit hundreds of top sites across the Web… The BlueLithium Voter Network reaches 119 million U.S. Internet users, or 65 percent of the US Internet population, making it larger than Google Search, AOL, MSN or MySpace. The network includes most of the 250 top household-name Web sites. Real-time reporting capabilities, and the ability to modify campaigns on the fly, deliver high levels of control and flexibility, important factors in the world of politics where tides can turn in a matter of hours.”

In a Aug. 29, 2007 Behavioral Insider interview, Blue Lithium’s CMO explained [my italics] that “[T]he rise of behavioral targeting allows campaigns to go beyond demographics or Zip codes to connect with voters based on highly specific interests and passions…Using online behavior, it becomes possible to identify people who are most engaged in and motivated by the issue based on sites they’ve visited, searches they’ve made, offers and ads they’ve been responsive to and communities of interest. In the past, campaigns were limited to looking at demographic markers like education level, age, income and race as a proxy for who might be interested in an issue…Online there’s a far richer pool of data to work with, including sites they visit, petitions, polls, or types of publications — and within [those pubs], specific articles they’ve read.

In addition to browsing, search and previous call-to-action response behavior, we’re finding that new approaches such as online polling on particular issues or special interests are a great way to identify activists. Questions like ‘Do you think the price of gas is too high?’ And ‘What should the government do about it?’ are ways of identifying preferences and profiling attitudes, and can be highly predictive of wider political orientations…We think that, as with Zip code targeting in swing states and districts in 2004, behavioral innovations forged in 2008 will become the new template for future campaigns.”

Before candidates and campaigns embrace such targeting techniques, they must examine the ethical and privacy concerns. Consumers and voters have no idea they are being tracked, profiled and targeted in this way. Protecting privacy in the digital age should be part of every candidates’ platform and position. Behavioral targeting and related interactive marketing approaches require strong federal consumer safeguards. Once those policies are in place, such new media election techniques can perhaps be done in a responsible manner.

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Behavioral Targeting and Online Lead Generation

For now, here are key excerpt’s from a recent [8/24/07] Behavioral Insider interview that demonstrate the links between BT, online lead generation, and the interactive ad business. It’s not about sub-prime mortgages, but could easily be.

From the story intro:
“Lead generation is a discrete wing of interactive marketing, and so the ways in which it uses behavioral targeting are a bit different as well. Active Response Group uses behavioral tracking to enhance its ability to gather qualified leads from its banner network.” [what follows are responses from Active Response Group’s CEO]: “We’re able to use BT and retargeting, so when someone registers for a particular form or takes an offer or clicks on a banner, or doesn’t click on a banner — we record all of that, and then, based on the vertical they are clicking on, we will use that to retarget additional offers…One of the most powerful things that you can do is offer either a free trial to begin the dialogue or as a carrot, or some sort of information that’s relevant to that consumer…We consider credit cards a lead because there is no transaction involved other than signing up. We find people will sign up for multiple credit cards at the same time…. And one of the interesting things about that is, behavior is the same in the prime market as in the sub-prime market, although we have stayed away from the sub-prime of late.”

Mortgage Lead Generation and the Online Ad Industry: Investigation is Required

The role which the search engines and others have played in the subprime mess requires serious scrutiny from regulators, policymakers, and consumer advocates. Our blog will be posting a few thoughts on this topic over the next few days. We believe the tracking of individuals seeking such loans and the online process created for them raises many questions, including privacy. For example (and not to single any one company out), but Ipagio.com explains that “Mortgage Lead Generation is dependent on high search engine rankings. Every mortgage website we sell is Search Engine Optimized to insure you get the highest search engine rankings possible in leading search engines such as Google, MSN, and Yahoo.” Ipagio then goes on to discuss how the sites they work with can track users, using Google Analytics: “Google Analytics Implementation – All mortgage lead generation websites come with Google Web Analytics installed. A few things this enables you to track are: who is visiting your site, where they are coming from, what pages the are viewing, what pages they are entering or leaving from, and many more related variables. This analytics suite is one of the most comprehensive on the market and does not cost you anything. There are no monthly, annual, or setup fees involved.” Ipagio–and I’m only using them as an example and know nothing about the company beyond what they say on its site–then explains the “Mortgage Lead Conversion” process: If you are successfully driving traffic to a search engine optimized website, then you must be able to convert those visitors to leads when they visit your website. For a website to be able to convert visitors to leads, it must be authoritative, must provide ample opportunities to gather leads, must be a resource for visitors with useful information and tools, and must have high converting application forms.”

The FTC and other agencies must investigate the online lead generation sector, especially mortgages and credit. To the extent that companies are taking advantage of consumers, such practices must be exposed and stopped. Online lead generation raises privacy issues which require a thorough examination from officials.
PS: We note a description by the New York Times’ Brad Stone in his blog about mortgage lead generator LowerMyBills.com. It raises issues related to the use of rich media, flash, immersion, etc. in such ads. Excerpt: “The notorious ads, with their dancing silhouettes, shimmying green aliens and bizarre boogeying office workers, were once plastered across many major Internet sites, including NYTimes.com. They are now much harder to find.”

Check out this blog for some more info on the ads.

Role of Interactive Advertising & the Subprime Scandal: Another wake-up call for FTC

Yesterday’s Financial Times has an important story which should trigger an investigation into how the online marketing industry has faciliatated the selling of subprime mortgages and other credit. The online ad industry–including search engines and publishers–have to begin to act more responsibly. It’s time for real public policies by the FTC and Congress to protect consumers. Here’s an excerpt from Richard Waters FT piece:

“Internet companies are bracing for a possible fall-off in one of their biggest sources of advertising following the meltdown in the subprime mortgage market…Pricing could also be hurt more broadly on some classes of advertising on web search engines, because fewer advertisers are expected to be competing in the advertising auctions run by companies such as Google to have their messages displayed next to specific keywords.

“A lot of the subprime [advertising] has gone away,” said David Jakubowski, general manager of Microsoft’s MSN service.

This loss had yet to have a broader effect in the search business, he added…

Many online companies depend for a disproportionate amount of their income on financial services advertising, with subprime in some cases accounting for a large part of it.

Sixteen per cent of all online advertising comes from financial services companies, making it the second biggest source of advertising behind the retailing sector…

Companies that lent to subprime borrowers relied heavily on the internet to attract customers, concentrating the effect of the meltdown…According to data from Nielsen/NetRatings, mortgage lenders Countrywide and Low Rate Source were two of the 10 biggest online advertisers in the US in July.”

Take a look as well at this very interesting ZDNet Aug. 16th online column by Dan Farber and Larry Dignan (excerpt):


The top spender on advertising is a mortgage referral company Low Rate Source (woops). The third ranked company is credit rating firm Experian (may actually do better because if your credit rating isn’t pristine you’re not getting a mortgage). And the fourth ranked advertiser was Countrywide Financial, which just tapped its credit line because mortgage liquidity is drying up. Countrywide is a lock to cut spending and its online advertising budget. And you can’t peruse Yahoo Finance or Google Finance without getting a mortgage pitch somewhere.

InterActive Corp. is the fifth ranked advertiser and it’s a safe to bet that some of that advertising directs folks to LendingTree, which also refers folks to lenders…Meanwhile, there are a lot of keywords being bought by those aforementioned companies. Watch the language from Google, Microsoft or Yahoo to monitor the fallout.”

And when Congress, the FTC or state attorneys-general begin investigating, it may be useful to consider this, courtesy of MediaPost’s Marketing Daily:

A recent article by Patricia A. McCoy in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, titled “Rethinking Disclosure in a World of Risk-Based Pricing,” found that “numerous subprime ads are tantamount to affirmative misrepresentations.”

Specifically, McCoy found two main areas of advertising deception under the terms of the Truth in Lending Act. First, “TILA allows sub-prime lenders to tout their best rates, without disclaimers and regardless of the fact that numerous sub-prime customers will not qualify for those rates.” Second, TILA also “permits lenders to dangle alluring teaser rates before consumers without notifying them how high their interest rates might go following rate reset.”

In effect, she adds, this means that “sub-prime lenders can entice customers with rosy prices that are not available to weaker borrowers, hike the price after customers pay a hefty application fee, then raise the price again at closing.”

Two Intersecting Media Stories: Hearst

The further privatization of media outlets is an important story, esp. in the context of the current FCC media ownership proceeding. We wonder what those new lobbyists will be working on! Look at excerpts from two stories with almost back-to-back datelines.

1. Hearst Launches Offer For TV Stations. 8/24/07

Multichannel News) _ Hearst Corp launched a $600 million cash tender off for the remaining 27% of Hearst-Argyle Television it doesn’t already own, an effort to take the television station group private.

Hearst already owns 52% of the outstanding stock of Hearst-Argyle, and with its 100% ownership of its super-voting Class B shares, controls about 73% of Hearst-Argyle’s equity and general voting power.

2. Aug. 20, 2007
Hearst-Argyle Hires Lobbyists

WASHINGTON — Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., operator of 29 television stations, hired Brooks, Pierce, McClendon, Humphrey & Leonard to lobby the federal government, according to a disclosure form.

The firm will lobby on legislation that affects broadcast television stations, according to a form posted online Aug. 8 by the Senate’s public records office.

Murdoch’s MySpace expands data collection/ad targeting, including on whether users say they smoke, drink, religious beliefs, etc.

The powerful commercial forces shaping new media platforms like MySpace–so they can better reap big dollars from powerful brand advertisers– should raise user alarm bells. MySpace is going to [our italics] “leverage the data input by each MySpace user into their profile from a group of predefined menu choices (related to questions such as drinker, children, education, smoker, religion, college, employer, etc). Within the next year, MySpace will be able to target ads based on what users write and place on their Myspace page itself, such as what TV shows members like to watch or music they listen to. Aside from focusing on members’ login pages, the ad targeting will be used across all of the MySpace-programmed, “safe” advertising sections, such as the Music homepage and MySpaceTV.” That’s according to a 8/24 report from paidcontent.org

On August 17th, Coca Cola also paid $1 million to “have its logo splashed across the entire home page of the Fox Interactive Media social net for the entire day.”

Such news follows last week’s report from the Wall Street Journal on Facebook’s plans to expand the role of advertising and targeted marketing as well. Much more work needs to be done to create social networks where marketing is done responsibly in terms of privacy, environmental sustainability, and with the focus on revenues serving community interests.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission should open up an investigation. It’s additional evidence that the agency has to swiftly act to protect consumers, including youth. The upcoming town hall on online marketing and data collection–done in response to a complaint filed by this blogger’s group and USPIRG–is insufficient. What will it take for the FTC to be proactive in this area? Congress should hold hearings on how well the agency is truly addressing the ever-growing threats to online privacy from interactive marketing, including its impact on the public health.

PS: Just a reminder about what a former Fox Interactive president said about MySpace, according to trade reports: the “digital gold inside of MySpace wasn’t the number of users, but the information they’re providing, structured and unstructured data” …

PPS: More on what to expect from profile-based targeting via MySpace [excerpt from 8/7/07 Mike Barrett interview] :”By October or November we’ll have broken these 11 segments into 100 segments. So you can target people who are not just interested in beauty, but makeup. Or people not just interested in travel, but safari travel. Being able to break down the segments even more finely will add more value to marketers.”

Social Relationship data collection and targeting [via imediaconnection]: “Conventional wisdom says that MySpace and Facebook are powerful because of their massive reach and addictive usage. While true, they are in fact even more powerful because they are able to add significant layers of data to make their advertising more relevant. Indeed, very few properties other than social networks collect the various layers of data necessary to provide true relevance. Social networks have the potential to serve advertisements based on a user’s age, sex, interest, relationship data, and with some modifications, they could add the rest of the data as well.”

The imediaconnection piece says that social network marketers can define relationship data by asking itself: What do we know about the user’s friends that can enable us to better target the advertising.”

FCC Commissioner Copps is Right. U.S. Needs Broad Debate on Media Policy: Past, Present & Future

Last Friday, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was a guest on the Bill Moyers Journal public television program. Copps urged the country to have a serious discussion about the future of the U.S. communications system during this crucial period of transition from old to digital media. He is correct that we deserve to make what’s going on–and will likely occur–as conscious and participatory as possible. It’s not a mystery that the corrupt politics of media policy-making and greed have left our journalistic and entertainment institutions largely bereft of public service, deprived us of vibrant journalism, and has prevented diversity of ownership control by both people of color and women. It’s not a secret to see the broadband world we are headed towards, unless we create a national movement focused on creating democratic structures for broadband communications (both policy and market-based).

That’s why the plea by Commissioner Copps should serve as a call-to-action for advocates and others concerned about the future of our media system (hello, J-School Deans and foundations, for example). It’s time to discuss the very rapildy emerging future, as we close the door on the 20th Century struggles that have exemplified broadcast and media ownership policy. Let’s tackle how the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” should be defined in this part of the 21st Century. Before it is entirely decided by the same powerful forces which determined the fate of radio, broadcast T.V. and cable.