Imagine that a Web site could track where your cursor was pointing. Now imagine this is happening on the largest social network in the world, Facebook.
On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the site is testing technology that could collect such data as how long a user's cursor hovers over a given part of a Web site, or whether a user's Newsfeed is showing. The newspaper cited an interview it conducted with Ken Rudin, head of Facebook's analytics. Prior to Facebook, Rudin was vice president of analytics and platform technologies at the Zynga game company.
Rubin said that the collection of such data could be added to the company's data warehouse, where analytical engines can glean insights from the mass of Big Data and can guide the direction of new products undertaken by Facebook or the placement of advertising by outside sponsors.
Behavioral, Demographic Data
Building profiles of this kind of behavioral data would add to the growing store of demographic data that Facebook has been constructing about its users. Currently, Facebook demographic data includes the social graph of one's friends and the kinds of things one "likes," while the new behavioral data collection could greatly expand the company's collection of how users act.
Rudin said that it wasn't clear when these enhanced methods of collecting behavioral data will be rolled out, but that a decision will "probably" be made within a few months. He is preparing for a large rollout, with a large increase in Facebook's infrastructure so that it can handle larger amounts of data.
Some other sites already use such behavioral tracking, such as the photo marketplace Shutterstock, which similarly tracks where cursors are and how long they hover over an image before a purchase.
The collection of such behavioral data is driven in part by the interest of marketers in behavioral marketing. In July, for instance, industry research firm Forrester Research released a report on the subject, "Use Behavioral Marketing to Up the Ante in the Age of the Customer."
'Gaze Tracking System'
The use of behavioral marketing, where brand messages or product offers are triggered by user action, is made possible on a large scale by the growth in the use of marketing automation systems. Previously, many of the behavioral triggers in marketing automation systems have been functions that the user is consciously performing, such as placing an item into a shopping cart, which could then trigger an offer for a discounted purchase of a related item.
But behavioral marketing that captures what the user is doing, without the user's conscious consent or understanding, mirrors the cookie-based tracking of users across Web sites for the delivery of online ads that relate to a user's perceived interest. Such practices inevitably raise questions about whether this data collection has crossed a line of privacy, where the user has a reasonable expectation that their browsing -- the online equivalent of looking -- is being followed.
This kind of tracking could become even more pronounced as computing devices increasingly respond to gazes, voice commands, hand gestures, body positions, and other real-world behavior. This is more than just conjecture. In August, Google received a patent for a "gaze tracking system" in which an image recognition algorithm creates and transmits a log of what a user is seeing through an interactive headgear, like Google Glass, resulting in a model of that user's "psychographic self" for marketers.