A Scenic Tour of the Online World

Personalization, Privacy and The Creep Factor

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

A few years ago, I got this note from a high school friend who I hadn’t seen in years but had reconnected with on Facebook.

Hi Andrew,

You know, back in high school, I used to think you were so smart, but now I realize it’s just that you were so much older than the rest of us. Happy birthday!


It took me a few second, but I finally realized that I had put in a fake birthday when I signed up for Facebook.

Aside from demonstrating that I was paranoid about privacy before it was cool, I share this story because my real birthday wasn’t too long ago, and when I needed to search for something, I noticed that Google’s doodle was customized for me – not just birthday cake, but a “Happy birthday, Andrew!” rollover.

Now, I’m 99 44/100% sure that I’ve never put my real birthday in to anything other than tax forms, but somehow Google knows. Obviously, this is a whole lot less scary if I’m wrong and did give the almighty G my real birthday once.

But the point here isn’t about privacy, per se. It’s about how your customers react to whatever level of invasiveness you employ. This was shocking and unsettling for me. And yet, I’m OK with the banner ads for cordless drills that are currently following me around the internet. (I bought a really nice Ridgid model. Unbeatable lifetime warranty – even includes the batteries, which always die first.)

Younger web denizens, who seem to define privacy in completely different terms than those of us who came to the internet later in life (because the internet didn’t exist when we were kids …), they may not be freaked out at all, while the “of a certain age” set might turn off their computer for good after seeing something like this.

So, before you embark on any personalization initiatives, do some testing with your target audience. Comfort levels don’t always break along age lines, so don’t assume a younger audience will be more open to your efforts. At the very least, you should gain some insights into your audience’s overall views on the security you provide and the security they expect from your industry.

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