Gmail is in the process of rolling out a new ad system that could prove to be quite powerful: ads that learn what you’re interested in based on your email habits. The feature first showed up in my Gmail account earlier this afternoon (there’s a prompt informing users about the new ads), and a Google spokesperson has confirmed that they are indeed in the process of rolling this out worldwide. Here’s the full information page describing the feature, found by clicking the ‘Learn More’ button.
Google says that while this notification will be rolling out to users gradually over the coming days, the personalized ads won’t actually go live for around a month. In the mean time, users can opt-out of the new system through Gmail’s settings panel (the default is that you’re opted-in).
Google says that the system uses signals similar to those utilized by Priority Inbox, the automated system launched last August that attempts to highlight which of your incoming email is most important. These signals include things like who sent the message, whether or not you read it, and keywords that appear in the message.
For example, if you frequently email with your friends about cooking (and you actually read those messages), Gmail might start showing more ads related to cooking classes or a local merchant that specializes in cookware. Google says that by improving its existing ads its reduced the number it shows to users by a third, and it hopes to continue that trend with this new system.
Gmail’s ads have used an automated system similar to AdSense for years — it looks for keywords in your message content and then attempts to place a relevant ad in the sidebar. But now, as Gmail learns your habits, you’ll start seeing ads that aren’t directly related to the email you’re reading (but are hopefully related to your interests).
Of course, this is probably going to spark some privacy concerns. Google is explicitly stating that, just as with the original ad product, this is an automated system, and if you’re really concerned about privacy you can just turn it off. And the interest profile established by Gmail will not be used by any other Google advertising products. It seems like a long time ago now, but Gmail raised waves of privacy issues years ago when it first rolled out its ads in 2004 — and people obviously got over it.
One other interesting thing to note: in the help article about the new feature, Google specifically mentions “Offers and coupons for your local area” as possible ads. A Google spokesperson says that this is part of the company’s local efforts that have yet to roll out, but it sounds like it could be quite powerful — imagine getting Groupon-style offers not just in your inbox, but alongside your other email messages.