When Good Ads Go Bad

Targeting is the future of online advertising — or so I suggested yesterday when I cited a comment from Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and earlier mentioned a Yahoo ad campaign designed to target the advertising decision-makers who would might buy targeted ads (would that be meta-targeting?).

But what happens when targeted ads are misdirected? Online commentator Evan Coyne Maloney recently said ads attacking President Bush and Vice President Cheney annoyed readers of his conservative site, and caused him to withdraw from Google’s AdSense program.

AdSense lets bloggers and small web-sites get ads delivered to their pages. Publishers share in the revenues when people click on these ads. Maloney, a self-described“sometime political operative who also rode the dot-com wave from boom to bust” said too many pitches were misdirected and became were too insulting to his audience. His complaint to Google elicited this reply: “We understand your concern with the types of ads that are being displayed on your site. Please note that at this time AdSense only targets ads based on overall site content, not keywords or categories.” It would seem that the artificial intelligence crawler can determine that content is “political” but, not surprisingly, has trouble distinguishing left from right.

On the flip side of Maloney’s complaint, advertisers must worry that misdirected ads would waste money or, worse, tarnish their brands by appearing alongside inappropriate content. One survey by AdRelevance, a service (division?) of Nielsen/NetRatings, studied 300 million web ads, worth about $10 million, directed at women and selling women’s products. “Regardless of this targeted approach, more men on average saw these ads than women,” the report said, adding, “Targeting ads is anything but an exact science.”

The mission of AdRelevance seems to be helping big advertisers learn the art of placement. When into Maloney’s complaint, I tripped across a web site that helps small web publishers make use of AdSense. My sense is that everyone perceives that web ads are a fast-growing category, with huge potential, and many are rushing to embrace them. But the channel so novel that it still takes a pilot to help newcomers navigate past the sandbars. Interesting.

Tom Abate