Have you noticed that since you clicked that YouTube link for Nora the Piano Cat, you’ve been seeing significantly more online ads for pet food? Or that after you googled “cheap airline tickets,” every site you’ve visited seems to be advertising them? Or that once you bought 50 Shades of Gray, Amazon started suggesting products like . . . well, you get the idea.
Every day, online advertisers target internet users with ads for specific products and interests based on information they glean from our search data—the websites we visit, the amount of time we spend on a specific page, the links we click on, the content of our inboxes.
For most of us, this “behavioral targeting” feels like an invasion of privacy. According to Avniel Dravid (UW MBA 2007), cofounder of Enliken, a Seattle- and New York-based start-up that aims to give consumers control of their internet search data, it’s also inaccurate. Dravid explains that when you visit a website, that company can take what you’re browsing and sell the information to a third party. “Advertisers then buy that information and use it to advertise to you,” he says. But these advertisers can’t measure the accuracy of the search data they purchase, which is why they think you’re in the market for a blender, when really you just wanted to watch a Blendtec puree that iPhone 4s. As Dravid puts it, “You may think I like Nike shoes, but really I like Reeboks. I’m just looking at Nike shoes. It’s not great data. It’s almost garbage in, garbage out data.”
Enliken addresses this problem by giving consumers a way to inform advertisers of their preferences. As the company’s website states: “We believe a small amount of information shared willingly is worth more than a mountain of data gathered surreptitiously.”
Enliken’s model is fairly straightforward. By installing a free plugin, users can view the search data being collected about them, deciding which data they want to share with advertisers and which they want to keep private. In exchange for sharing that information, consumers will collect reward points, which they can use to pay for digital content from online retailers or publishers.
Enliken is free for consumers. Revenue will come from advertisers. Dravid explains advertisers want their online advertising to be more relevant, and he believes that advertisers will pay to receive quality data about their customers, straight from the source.
In the meantime, Enliken has already released its first product, Enliken Discover, built by Dravid and cofounder Marc Guldimann during a summer spent traveling around Europe. It’s a teaser as to what the company will offer once they’ve built partnerships with consumers, online retailers, and publishers. The two cofounders have also secured $250,000 in angel investments and plan to raise another $250,000, all to keep you safe from advertisers who target you with ads for the latest BMW, just because you bought some turtle wax for your Tercel.