Coming soon to a billboard near you - Google adverts
Google may be about to pair all that data it has on users' web browsing with the ads displayed on public billboards. Creepy? Maybe. Inevitable? Almost certainly. The Alphabet Inc unit is in talks in Germany about pushing into out-of-home advertising billboards in stations, shopping centres and shop windows according to 'WirtschaftsWoche'. The move would be a precursor to similar expansion in the US and the UK, the magazine said.
That's unlikely to mean that a Google search for underwear as a gift will pop Calvin Klein ads on the digital billboard when you're at a bus stop. You can leave your copy of '1984' on the bookshelf for now. But it could mean that, when a train full of Borussia Dortmund fans arrives at the station, the advertising hoarding changes to show soccer kit or beer, while on a Monday morning at rush hour it displays BMW ads for well-to-do commuters.
Google has been testing programmatic ad technology for billboards since at least 2015. The technology is currently restricted mainly to web ads: because Google, Facebook and others are able to track users' browsing behaviour, they are better able to target publicity at them.
Because of Google's dominant position in mobile operating systems - Android runs on three-quarters of all the phones in Europe - it is also able to track users' locations. Privacy concerns mean it's unlikely to be able to target out-of-home ads at individuals, but it can pull demographic data on what kinds of people are in a given place at a given time.
Using cellular data for advertising hoardings isn't new: Carriers such as BT Group already sell data to advertisers, while it's estimated that automation of digital-billboard purchasing could boost earnings at JCDecaux by as much as 66pc.
Digital outdoor ad spending is growing at 15pc annually, and will overtake traditional outdoor outlays by 2020, according to PwC. But Google is the 800-pound gorilla that's not yet in the room. It would give it another major edge over Facebook.
Many lucrative locations are already on long-term leases but one option could see Google bidding for future control for Transport for London billboards operated by Exterion Media.
It's not quite 1984, but George Orwell would surely be taking notice.