I have no advertising in this blog but I am trying to learn more about it. Today I’ll focus on a few bits about contextual advertising — placing ads alongside relevant words (dog food ads near dog story.) An article in Online Journalism Review notes that contextual ads sometimes create embarrassing matches, like the massage service whose ad ran alongside a news article about police raids on alleged sex parlors.

That isn’t a problem unique to new media. Mismatches occur in newspapers. I’ve heard chuckles in the newsroom when it’s discovered, often after the fact, that an embarrassing story has run alongside an ad. Ad pages are laid out prior to news pages and I don’t know whether news layout people look at the juxtapositions.

The two big contextual programs are Google’s AdSense and Yahoo’s ContentMatch. OJR notes that, unlike Google which relies upon word-matching technology, Yahoo has “a staff of more than 100 editorial people” to minimize placement gaffes.

Jennifer Slegg, author of the JenSense blog, told OJR about another Google shortcoming. It indexs web pages monthly. Slegg told OJR that “writing a single entry about popcorn right before the (Goggle) bot visits can result in popcorn ads for about a month” even if that’s the only time in the month the word was mentioned.

Contextual ad programs, says OJR, work best on focused commercial content. A travel site will do better than a general news site. Again, no surprises. It’s the same way in old media. Newspaper lifestyle sections are chock a bloc with ads.

Don’t let these minor problems obscure the fact that contextual ad-matching programs are a great for beginning publishers who don’t have a sales force. For instance, Jason Calacanis old OJR he used contextual ads to “jumpstart” Weblogs, Inc. But, he added that he “derives the majority of his income from display ads sold directly to advertisers.”

Heed the lesson. Start with the auto-placement programs. But use the money to hire a salesperson. The publisher who doesn’t sell his or her own content is missing the majority of the ad revenues that could be had.

On a separate note, I think these auto programs turn off many advertisers. They’re too complex. For instance, Search Engine News recently reported a “simplification” of Google’s AdWords programs (by which advertisers bid for words). I read the piece but am not sure how the old program worked or how the new program differs. That may be why there is a cottage industry in helping advertisers choose words to buy.

While I’m on the subject I found a survey article in Media Post that named several contextual ad vendors. I don’t think the list is complete but it’s a start.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media