Itís the Little Ads  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   December/January 2004

Itís the Little Ads   

Intrusive pop-ups canít compare to ads paired with related content.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


Never mind those super-size banners, animated ads and full-screen advertisements that interrupt the viewer's trip from one Web page to another. For online editors, the simple text ads that connect with content are a bigger deal.

At the bottom of a USAToday.com story about college basketball, in a shaded box labeled "Related Advertising Links," one might find a plain-text advertisement for basketball gear. The ad is placed by a computer program, which matches a keyword in the ad to text in the story. Unfortunately, the same technology might also match a story about Arnold Schwarzenegger's October appearance at the Mr. Olympia contest with a Web site selling steroids. Clever concept, unpredictable results.

USAToday.com's advertising links are delivered by AdSense, a Google service that sells ad positions to more than 150,000 businesses and nonprofits--and the occasional presidential candidate--and uses Google search technology to place them next to relevant pages on sites such as washingtonpost.com and NYTimes.com. (My company, IBS, is also a Google partner.) The advertisers submit their copy through an automated process and pay when people click on their links; Google and its partners share the revenue. Yahoo! subsidiary Overture Services Inc. offers a similar service to other major content sites, including Knight Ridder's newspaper Web sites. Both services launched within the past year.

There's a lot to like about these little ads. They're contained in clearly labeled boxes, so there's no mistaking them for editorial content. The plain-text format is refreshingly polite and won't interrupt the viewer's experience or crash older browsers like other ads sometimes do. They don't trick people into accidentally clicking; instead they rely on being relevant. Yet there's no chance of advertisers influencing content because they have no direct relationship with the site. And when a good match is made, the viewer gets a tightly targeted ad that hits the spot.

There's just one hitch: The controversial detail that separates these sponsored links from other types of contextual advertising is that the individual Web sites don't act as gatekeepers-- Google and Overture do. While both companies use human editors to screen for inappropriate submissions, placement is handled by algorithms, based on keywords the advertisers type into the system. And the system isn't perfect.

Often, the match merely misses the mark. A recent USAToday.com story about a vampire-killing kit auctioned by Sotheby's prompted AdSense to key off the word "kit" and display several ads for first aid kits. (Not wholly inappropriate, on second thought.) In worse cases, the juxtaposition is downright distasteful. In one highly publicized example, an advertisement for luggage appeared next to a New York Post story about a gruesome murder involving a suitcase.

Beyond tasteless pairings, there are other concerns: The Democratic presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Wesley Clark, for instance, are both AdSense clients, which means their ads will appear next to campaign coverage. That could be a problem for newsrooms with strict policies about political advertising. AdSense has also been known to place ads for one news organization on a competitor's site.

And let's face it, the spirit of equal opportunity in advertising is less attractive in practice. Google's clients include Fortune 500 companies and many worthy causes--but also an abundance of get-rich-quick plans, purveyors of "hard to obtain" pharmaceuticals and attorneys specializing in getting people off the hook for all sorts of nasty things. Viewers, not realizing these ads are brokered by a third party, will rightly wonder why a top news organization would do business with such a strange mix of clients.

That's why communication is an important part of this emerging practice. Most Google partners post a "What's this?" link that offers a brief explanation of the arrangement. Washingtonpost.com's disclosure even includes a form for feedback. Will a disclaimer satisfy concerned viewers? Should it?

Sites can also block specific advertisers and build lists of words that should never trigger ads. And they can limit where the ads should run. Google and Overture, meanwhile, are constantly fine-tuning their placement engines to make more intelligent decisions. There's even speculation Google might switch to a system that uses editor-defined categories instead of just scanning the text on a page.

There's promise in contextual advertising despite its challenges--enough that several of America's top news organizations have chosen to stick with the program. Ultimately, those companies are accountable for the messages that appear on their sites, no matter how the ads get there.

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