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SAN FRANCISCO - While Google Inc. has long been in a position to accumulate data about Internet users, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company on Wednesday took its first significant public step toward making use of that information to help it target advertising.


Google said it’s begun testing an “interest-based” service that examines what its users do on a variety of related Web sites to help it deliver both text and display advertising to them. Display advertising is key for Google, as it expands its focus beyond text-based, search advertising.


The new advertising service will be run between Google’s partner Web sites and its YouTube video service.


“These ads will associate categories of interest - say, sports, gardening, cars, pets - with your browser, based on the types of sites you visit and the pages you view. We may then use those interest categories to show you more relevant text and display ads,” Google’s vice president of product management, Susan Wojcicki, wrote on the company Web site.


Critics and industry observers have long maintained that it was only a matter of time before Google began tapping the behavior of users tied to its vast advertising network to boost its business - a move signaled in 2007 when the company acquired DoubleClick, a display-advertising specialist that boasted a number of targeting technologies.


While it runs the risk of irking privacy advocates and lawmakers, “behavioral targeting” in online advertising is widely viewed as an inevitable evolution.


“Our advertisers and publisher partners have been asking us for a long time to offer interest-based advertising,” Wojcicki wrote.


To date, Google has largely used information such as a search query only at the time that it’s being provided by an Internet user to deliver an advertisement. But last year, Google began testing the use of a previous search query to help it target ads with results of a user’s current query. It was a small step, but its significance was widely remarked upon.


In addition, when Google released its Chrome browser last year, it included technology that tied Web addresses visited through the technology to users. Google later responded to criticism of that feature by masking the data roughly 24 hours after it’s entered.


Fellow Internet giants including Yahoo Inc. and AOL already use behavioral targeting to help them serve display advertising. But Google’s foray has been highly anticipated, due to the incredible popularity of its search service, the breadth of its advertising network and the company’s corresponding war chest of user data.


“There was a lot of tension and anticipation about when and how they would make this move,” said Gartner Inc. analyst Andrew Frank. Depending on the initial foray, Google now has the ability to expand behavioral targeting into a number of its businesses, such as mobile phone advertising, Frank said.


While its embrace of behavioral targeting is newsworthy, Google is relatively late to the game.


The use of behavioral targeting is now self-policed through the Network Advertising Initiative, a group of companies that voluntarily abide by certain standards. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission issued new, stricter guidelines for the self-regulation of behavioral advertising that nonetheless fell short of some privacy groups’ expectations.


In anticipation of privacy advocates’ concerns, Google said Wednesday that it will deploy a set of related features. “As Google prepared to roll out interest-based advertising, we talked to many users, privacy advocates and government experts,” Google’s deputy general counsel, Nicole Wong, wrote in her own posting on the company Web site.


As a result, Google said it would allow users to see and potentially delete any “interest categories” associated with their Web browser. In addition, Google said users always have a capacity to “opt out of the advertising cookie” that gets planted in their computers to help the company match interests to advertising.


Still, Center for Digital Democracy executive director Jeff Chester criticized Google’s privacy safeguards as inadequate. In particular, he argued that users should have to opt in to the “interest-based” ad service, rather than being required to opt out.


“We are going to call on Google to revise its plan so users can opt in before any targeting or data collection can occur,” Chester said. “We will also ask it to not target anyone under 18.”


While its embrace of behavioral targeting is newsworthy, Google is relatively late to the game.


Yahoo, for example, has for some time been using a limited amount of information gleaned from what its users do on external partner Web sites in serving them advertisements.


When Yahoo acquired BlueLithium Inc. in 2007, it also gained significant “retargeting” technology that can examine what users have been looking for on Yahoo sites in order to serve them advertisements after they’ve departed for external sites.


Meanwhile Google archrival Microsoft Corp. acquired its own significant behavioral-targeting capability when it bought DoubleClick rival aQuantive Inc. in 2007.

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