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By piecing together demographic search results, Quantcast and Velocitravel were able to increase air travel bookings to Las Vegas by 80 percent. Image via Quantcast.

APEX Insight: As advancements in targeted online advertising are made, consumers are taking steps to retain their privacy, but digital marketing agencies such as Quantcast might argue that “information is power” – even for the consumer.

As targeted advertising becomes more accurate, consumers may have to decide what’s worth more: the privacy of their personal information, or finding the next great travel deal online.

Powerful search engines like Google are making online shopping more convenient and transforming how businesses market and sell products. Airlines have incorporated search marketing into their digital strategy, and one application of that is dynamic advertising and pricing of airfares. With a quick Internet search, consumers can easily compare different airfares to find the best travel deals. What’s not immediately obvious is that these deals can be tailored to specific users based on their search histories: The price you see for a flight to London might be different for someone else, even if you’re both looking at the same seat in the same moment.

When a consumer visits a travel-booking website and starts scrolling through flights, the vendor analyzes the potential buyer’s search history through the cookies (small data packets) stored in their browser cache, which are scanned to gain insight into their browsing and spending habits. The airfares are listed at rates based on these findings: This is known as dynamic pricing.

Quantcast, a digital marketing agency in San Francisco, offers a good example of how airlines use search-based advertising to target relevant customers. Last year, Velocitravel, Velocitravel, a travel booking agency that is now defunct, partnered with Quantcast to promote a deal on flights to Las Vegas. During the campaign, Quantcast noticed a surge in activity from users who had – according to their cookie caches – been looking at vegan recipes and buying yoga merchandise online before searching for cheap flights to Las Vegas. Further investigation revealed that a large yoga convention was taking place in Vegas at the same time Velocitravel was promoting cheap flights to the city; Quantcast capitalized on this and directed potential attendees to their client’s ads, increasing Velocitravel’s bookings by 80 percent.

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Concerned web users try to retain a degree of privacy by using VPNs or searching for flights in incognito windows.

Dynamic pricing is great for airlines, but it’s easy to see how consumers might be ruffled by airfare costs fluctuating just because they’ve searched for a flight on the same website more than once, or indeed by the idea of businesses “snooping” on their personal information. Concerned web users try to retain a degree of privacy by using VPNs or searching for flights in incognito windows, but these tactics aren’t completely effective: Everything from an Internet browser itself to the specific keywords of a search can be used to profile a consumer’s identity.

Advances in Internet marketing complicate online shopping for “smart consumers” who expect to easily find the best online flight deals while retaining control over their personal information. Personalized targeting may be an effective marketing strategy, but for some consumers, airlines may be treading the line between cool and creepy. Read “Target Practice,” in The Marketing Issue of APEX Experience magazine, or to learn more about Google’s persuasive powers, read “Automatic Bias” in The Design Issue.

Fergus Baird is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Montreal. Follow his oddball alter ego on Twitter and Instagram for observations on weird life in the city and beyond.