The New York Times steps onto the online privacy beat this morning (the one put on the front burner recently by The Wall Street Journal) with a story on how sites are using their knowledge of what you’ve shopped for to pitch ads at you—on other sites. Your shopping history can now follow you around the Web.

Oddly enough, I felt like this story had followed me around the Web, too.

Advertising Age ran a column a few weeks ago on retargeting, discussing how a writer’s visit to Zappos.com to look for shorts ended up carpetbombing him with Zappos ads for shorts all over the Internet:

In the five days since, those recommendations have been appearing just about everywhere I’ve been on the web, including MSNBC, Salon, CNN.com and The Guardian. The ad scrolls through my Zappos recommendations: Hurley, Converse by John Varvatos, Quicksilver, Rip Curl, Volcom. Whatever. At this point I’ve started to actually think I never really have to go back to Zappos to buy the shorts — no need, they’re following me.

The Times uses Zappos.com as the lead anecdote. Actually, it’s the only anecdote.

It’s a mostly harmless misstep. The Times liberally credits the Ad Age column and even quotes a paragraph.

And we’ll be the last people arguing that journalists shouldn’t tread where others have gone before. We love drumbeat coverage.

But using the same company for its anecdote makes the piece weaker than it presumably could have been. Using the same company as its only anecdote makes the story just weak, period. If it couldn’t find another company to spotlight with four weeks headstart from Ad Age then are we to infer that the phenomenon isn’t that widespread?

Maybe not:

More retailers like Art.com, B&H Photo, Diapers.com, eBags.com and the Discovery Channel store use these kinds of ads. Nordstrom says it is considering using them, and retargeting is becoming increasingly common with marketers in the travel, real estate and financial services industries. The ads often appear on popular sites like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace or Realtor.com.

The Times should have gotten an anecdote from eBags or whatever. It probably could have done that itself in about half an hour.

This is a case where a seemingly small thing undermines the impact of what should have been a better story—especially since it’s given the front-page treatment.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.