Yahoo Mail Users, Prepare for Creepy, Gmail-Style Ads

Yahoo! headquarters in Sunnyvale, California Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Yahoo, which has been collecting assets at a rapid clip during the Marissa Mayer era, is beginning to cash some of those in. True to form, it is doing so by using the personalized services it has refined or purchased to increase the amount of advertising its users will see.

Starting today, Yahoo Mail users have to upgrade to the new version of the service or find a new e-mail account. Mayer, who is said to have played a major role at Gmail at Google, singled out Yahoo’s mail service as an early target when she became Yahoo’s chief executive, and the new version is similar to Gmail in one major way: It uses the content of users’ messages to serve up relevant ads. And there’s no choice. In order to keep their e-mails, users must agree to new terms of service that give Yahoo the right to “scan and analyze all incoming and outgoing communications content sent and received from your account (such as Mail and Messenger content including instant messages and SMS messages) including those stored in your account to, without limitation, provide personally relevant product features and content, to match and serve targeted advertising and for spam and malware detection and abuse protection.”

Users who would rather Yahoo didn’t do all that are given instructions for downloading their messages to another e-mail provider and encouraged to shut down their accounts.

The e-mail ads come on the heels of an attempt to make money off another big acquisition: Tumblr. Last week the blogging network announced it would begin running sponsored posts in users’ dashboards on the Web, about a year after having introduced similar ads to mobile feeds. Initiatives such as these are a big reason Tumblr acceded to Yahoo’s advances, and the company will benefit from an ad sales staff at Yahoo that, according to Advertising Age, is about 100 times as large as Tumblr’s before the acquisition.

As advertising vehicles, Tumblr and Yahoo Mail share devoted users, which make them lucrative—and precisely the kinds of customers invasive ads could risk alienating.

The unease in Tumblr’s community has been well documented (and openly acknowledged by Yahoo). It’s not clear what will happen with Yahoo’s mail service, but hundreds of millions of Gmail users have already voted yes to having corporate robots read their e-mail. Yahoo’s mail service is the most popular e-mail in the U.S., according to ComScore.

Google doesn’t break out its advertising revenue by service, so it’s hard to tell how well its e-mail ads perform in comparison with other types of personalized advertising. Microsoft, apparently, has decided it isn’t worth it. The company, which folded Hotmail into its Outlook mail service earlier this year, has been trying to drum up privacy concerns about Gmail, as part of a larger attempt to make people feel uncomfortable with Google’s perceived lackadaisical attitude toward their personal data. Microsoft began an anti-Gmail ad campaign earlier this year and gathered 117,000 signatures on a online petition asking Google to stop the practice. It claimed that 88 percent of people disapproved of having their e-mail scanned to target advertisements at them, while pointing out that Gmail reads the mail not only of its users but of everyone they are corresponding with.

This isn’t exactly a secret. What some folks find creepy or invasive, Google and other companies trafficking in online advertisements say simply makes advertising relevant, useful, and fun. As is often the case with online privacy, the statistics don’t follow the stated concerns. Yahoo and Google have been adding e-mail customers over the past six months. Microsoft has been losing them.

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