A few weeks ago, I got a major wake-up call.  Apparently, I am a male between the ages of 35-44 who is highly interested in Earth Sciences, Chemistry, Spreadsheet Software and Business Productivity.  Talk about an unsettling way to start your day!

Last month during one of our weekly AdWords training sessions, our interactive marketing manager, Colleen Hofmann, provided everyone with a link to Google’s Ad Preference page.  Here, you can review a summary of your “online demographics profile” that largely dictates the nature of the internet experience you will have throughout the course of the day.

Although you can modify the listed interests and gender/age selections if they are completely off, I couldn’t help but laugh at what this basic technological assessment points out.  Although my blogs typically harp on the limits of technology (and lean ever-so-slightly towards personalized solutions that involve people and gadgets working together for positive outcomes), the conundrum I faced this morning made me realize that – in this case – technology and people share the same limitation.  An inability to accurately “judge a book by its cover” without taking a deeper look.

The same way  Google’s Ad Preference assumed I was a middle-aged male interested in nothing but business and geological earth sciences (the latter of which, I’ll admit, I know absolutely nothing about!), so too have I made assumptions about people or situations before having all of the facts.  Usually, I am pleasantly surprised by the big picture I receive when I do investigate further.

So what’s the harm in “online mis-profiling” anyway?  Unlike mistakenly assuming something about an actual person in actual reality, it’s doubtful any major repercussions will stem from a search engine assuming you like certain topics or are a certain age…except, maybe, seeing nothing but ads and “suggested content” streams of chemistry and Bill Nye the science guy when you’d rather be seeing race cars and monster trucks.

This is where an article I read a few weeks ago comes into play.  In it, Matt McGee talks about an experiment where three individuals were asked to perform a basic online search for the same three terms.  Interestingly, each user was presented with completely different looking results.  Depending upon the “online profile” of the person doing the search, the subsequent results generally look very different.

In several ways, this is convenient – assuming your online demographics are set correctly, the search engine is tailoring your queries especially for YOU and what you like…along with showing you ads you are more likely to be interested in.  Who isn’t fan of personalization?  And honestly, it seems pretty darn thoughtful of the search engine to care about what you like in the first place.

However, being content to remain within the limits of your own personal “filter bubble” might present the same kinds of missed opportunities that exist when we conform to our initial “first impressions.”  Whether these assumptions-at-a-glance involve people, places or situations that are new to us, we might inadvertently be missing out on something great by opting to remain limited to a surface view.

Just as Eli Pariser sought to raise awareness about online filter bubbles, I seek to bring attention to the ways people sometimes “filter bubble” other people and situations.  Personally, when I first started at HMA, I couldn’t help but develop initial impressions of everyone I worked with – as I know they did me!

At the time, I remember being thankful  our interactive developer, LeMaire Lee, was just about the only person at HMA who was arguably quieter than I was.  Little did I know this “quiet” person has a real knack for comedy – and even aspires to take a stab at a stand-up routine someday.  The same way I initially assumed a person who is quiet at work is unlikely to go home and perform a killer comedic show, search engines can’t accurately “profile” people from search histories and cookies alone.  In the end, search engines cannot reduce a complex individual to a set of topics or interests any better than a person can based upon initial first impressions of another person, place or situation.

The way I see it, my mistaken ad preference analysis was a great reminder to me that nothing is 100% what we see on the surface…whether the thing in question is data, search market analytics, people or even the “online versions” of ourselves.  It’s a great reminder to take a deeper look when you think you have it all figured out.  Plus – if you don’t, you might mistake a young, female cultural-enthusiast for a middle-aged, geologically-savvy gent!

What do your Ad Preferences say about how you search? Is it an accurate interpretation?