Is a targeted Web site a good thing?

As Web analytics tools give agencies a more precise picture of who is visiting their sites, it’s natural they should want to tailor their portals to better meet users’ needs. If you know a good percentage of your users are Hispanic, and they prefer to read material in Spanish, then why not present information in Spanish? But as Paul Henman, a professor of social policy at the University of Queensland in Australia noted, such profiling must be accompanied by consideration for policy and ethical issues.

“While targeting has many obvious benefits, its negatives are less well known,” Henman told GCN in an e-mail exchange. “It is often more efficient [to target groups]; you focus your resources on those most relevant. However, the notion of targeting also goes against the grain of equal treatment. Targeting necessarily involves treating different people differently.”

In a 2005 edition of the Journal of E-Government, Henman wrote that e-government efforts would inevitably drift toward customize services for clearly definable groups with particular sets of needs. The technology to do so is widely available and, indeed, widely deployed in the private sector. Data mining, data matching, computer modeling and advanced statistical analysis can all aid in better defining an audience.

But such targeting often involves inequality of access and choice, and even can assume negatives about particular groups. Used carelessly, it can lead to a public backlash and scandal for the agency.

Web managers can do a number of things to ensure targeting is used effectively, Henman contends. Among his recommendations:
  • Agency Web managers should put in place independent and public measures that assure targeting practices and profiles are necessary and carried out appropriately.

  • Web sites should clearly explain the benefits and reasons of a targeted service.

  • Managers should recognize that public service is a universal service, and such service should not be curtailed for simple administrative efficiency.

  • Wherever possible, agencies should look for universal traits of its entire audience.

“We need to differentiate behaviors on characteristics that we think are fundamental to the situation, rather than simply use the ones dominant in society (e.g. race, age) or administratively collected because they’re the ones we have,” Henman told us. “If we can’t see why race might influence behavior, than we shouldn’t use it or analyze it in the first place.”

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