For the most part, I think James Temple’s article in last week’s San Francisco Chronicle (Is it tracking or personalization? Ask the user.), is spot on.  Finding the right balance between privacy and personalization is a critical challenge of the digital age.  And he does a good job out outlining some of the key elements in the debate. But he blurs the lines regarding a couple of key terms that deserve better treatment.

The first is ‘relevant’. He cites a scenario of an overweight person doing searches and clicking on sites and articles in such a way that tracking software could tell he/she had a weight problem.  He complains that an advertiser could pitch ‘relevant’ – but unwelcome – ads for junk food.

He states these ads would be relevant (and effective) for the advertiser but not for the end user.  I disagree they should be called relevant in any way, shape or form. Relevance is an unmitigated good because to be relevant, you must satisfy the user’s implicit intent – i.e., something is only relevant to me if it accurately reflects what I want to see and receive right now in my current context. Putting a cocktail in front of an alcoholic may be  an effective way to drain the liquor cabinet, but it’s not a relevant offer. To characterize relevance as a potential negative is inaccurate.

The second term is personalization – which James equates with tracking. “In the online world, both terms have come to mean the same thing.” No, no, and no again. Personalization encompasses any technique that adapts the user experience to the characteristics, preferences and context of the current user. Tracking is just one means of driving personalization.

Baynote personalizes millions of web experiences every day – without tracking users from site to site (which is the definition of tracking James provides). Yes, we observe user behaviors on a web site and adapt accordingly – but we do it based on the user’s interaction with the current site only (we don’t track from site to site) and we do it anonymously.

Retargeting via tracking can be effective but it has a dark side. James is right to point that out. And it is a form of personalization. But he is being unfair and inaccurate when he equates tracking with personalization in total.

Read the article and let us know what you think.