I was on the New York Times site just now and was a bit freaked out when I glanced at the adjacent ad:

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I live in Leesburg, and the ad knows this. What struck me is that I was “freaked out” even though I understand the geo-targeting technology that makes this kind of customized ad possible — it still felt like an invasion of privacy. I can only imagine how someone who doesn’t know anything about what’s going on behind the scenes must feel. Last year I researched behavioral targeting online, and ads from Tacoda and Revenue Science pursued me in completely irrelevant contexts for weeks.

It’s easy to find out who is responsible for this ad — just watch the browser status bar while the page is loading:

*UDPATE: *Well, I’ve learned it’s not so easy to figure out who is responsible for an ad — the folks from Tacoda told me that the dating ad is absolutely NOT from Tacoda’s ad network. The domain below that I saw in the my browser status bar was from Tacado’s audience insight tags, i.e. Tacoda collecting data to be used for behavioral ad targeting elsewhere, so Tacoda was NOT serving any of the low relevancy ads on these NYTimes.com pages.

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What stuck me most is how poorly customized the ad actually is — the Tacoda ad server knows my network location, but it doesn’t know the crucial piece of data that would have informed the delivery of this ad — I’m happily married and have no interest in meeting singles. So while the ad got the geography right, it’s still utterly irrelevant.

I refreshed the page a few times, and here are some other ads that appeared:

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I may be traveling in the near future, but probably not to any of those generic destinations. And I already graduated from college, thanks very much — crawling my LinkedIn profile could have squeezed out that data point.

Yahoo’s new SmartAd platform promises to cobble together more bits of information to produce customized display ads — it won’t be hard to improve on the current sad state of affairs.

Facebook is currently the king of irrelevant display ads — despite all the time I’ve spent on Facebook recently, I don’t think I’ve seen a single relevant ad. Let’s try a quick visit to Facebook and see what I get:

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Come on guys, my birthday is my profile — you’ve got the data. Use it!

One additional note — it appears that NYTimes.com isn’t doing so well selling its blog inventory, since it appears to have Tacoda’s an ad network plugged into all of the blog pages, even for targeted niche topics like technology and fashion. That would seem more of a sales force failure than a lack of valuable inventory for direct ad sales.

After more than a decade of online advertising, you’d think we’d be farther along.