It's the Little Ads: Intrusive Pop-Ups Can't Compare to Ads Paired with Related Content

By Palser, Barb | American Journalism Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

It's the Little Ads: Intrusive Pop-Ups Can't Compare to Ads Paired with Related Content


Palser, Barb, American Journalism Review


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 finks 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. …

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