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Consumers Like Search Engines. Until They Start Tracking

New research from the Pew Internet & American Life project shows the conflicting emotions consumes have about search engines–and the difficulties online advertisers can face as they target advertising in this channel, or try to use the data to make personalized offers, which, as separate surveys have found, consumers actually like.

The Pew survey asked how respondents feel about search engines and other websites collecting information about them and using it to either shape their search results or target advertising to them.

Clear majorities of internet and search users disapprove of these practices in all the contexts. 65% said it would be a bad thing if a search engine collected information about searches and then used it to rank future search results. Why? Because it may limit the information you get online and what search results you see.

73% say they would not be okay with a search engine keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future search results because they feel it is an invasion of privacy.

On the other hand, Pew Internet data has consistently shown that search engine use is one of the most popular online activities, rivaled only by email as an internet pursuit. In January 2002, 52% of all Americans used search engines. In February 2012 that figure grew to 73% of all Americans.

But Do They Really Understand?

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land wonders how well consumers understand personalized search and how much they have formed an opinion based on headline news. For starters, Google has been personalizing search results for two years and Bing for one, he wrote.

"The fact that most people haven’t objected, or gone out of their way to prevent even logged-out personalization from happening, probably means that they really don’t understand the ways that personalization can be helpful."

Not the First Survey

This is not the first survey to capture consumers’ dislike of personalized search.  Forty-five percent of respondents to a recent Ask Your Target Market (AYTM) Google Search survey said no, they don’t want personalized search results delivered to them when they search–compared to 15.5% who said yes. Another 39.1% of respondents said they liked the idea of personalized searches, but were worried about privacy.

Those who said no (45.4%) said they think everyone should see the same results when searching for the same keyword.

Tailored Offers Are Different

However, there is ample evidence that when the consumer benefits, personalized information is okay. 72% of US consumers prefer to receive promotional offers that reflect their likes and dislikes, according to January 2012 by the UK Direct Marketing Association (DMA), sponsored by Velti.

German (46%) and French (50%) consumers are less drawn to preference-driven offers, although these offers still rank as their first choice. Surprise offers from companies are most popular in Germany (32%), with France (28%) closely following, although they are preferred by only 24% of US consumers and 20% of UK consumers.


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