Algorithms: Recipes for Disaster

When we purchase digital advertising, we place our faith in the algorithms–a fancy word for “recipes”–used to determine things like the final price of the inventory, which creative is shown, and the frequency at which those impressions are shown. There’s additional recipes to figure out if there’s a real person on the other end of the impression and whether they might be interested in the products we’re selling.

It’s comforting to believe that the recipes are neutral and unbiased. We are told constantly that they are a fair system, void of irrational human biases, where only the cream rises to the top. A meritocracy, in other words. After all, how could pure mathematics be wrong?

I’m often the one questioning the recipe and the recipe-makers themselves. I’m constantly told that “we’ve never been asked that question before.” I used to think that comment was hyperbole. I know there’s lots of smarter people than me out there. Surely somebody must have asked that question before, right?

I now think the recipe-makers are telling the truth. I think they’re often faced with skepticism, which they usually wave off with a version of the “you don’t get it, man” that’s been used since before the first dotcom crash. But I believe that they’re almost never faced with the specific questions about how exactly they arrived at the recipe. The blind faith in math by untrained digital “marketers” (who can’t do math themselves) has resulted in a dearth of common-sense questions.

Do you want to know what the impact of lousy recipes looks like? Read this article about how crummy algorithms, that nobody understands, are literally putting people’s lives at risk. Maybe these recipes aren’t being written by the best of the best, sure. After all, the best of the best are trying to make a quick buck at Facebook. But at least they let anybody with a sack of rubles pilfer our PII for nefarious purposes take good care of the data.

Algorithms are built by people. People are flawed. The algorithms are flawed.

Takeaway: Stop blindly trusting algorithms–they are being used to siphon off your advertising dollars. Start with strategy. Segment-Target-Position. Fight the Philistines. Don’t be a magpie. And win.

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