Friday, March 13, 2009

AdSense Interest-Based Advertising

Over the coming months, Google will be rolling out a new feature to their AdSense system called "Interest-Based Advertising". If you are not familiar with AdSense, scroll down a little and a look in the right hand column. See the light blue box that says at the top, "Ads by Google"? That is AdSense. Ads in that box are automatically placed there by Google. Google scans the content of my site and figures out which ads match that content. I write about photography a lot, so most of the ads are photography related. I get a couple of pennies every time those ads are clicked.

With this new "Interest-Based Advertising" system, Google will change the way it determines which ads will appear. Ad selection will now be, at least in part, determined by a visitor's profile that has been built up over time. What that means is that Google will track your movements on the Internet and determine what you are interested in. Don't get paranoid, it can only track you on Google properties and sites with AdSense. Google requires all participating sites to disclose this in their Privacy Policy. If you look at a lot of photography related sites, Google will think you are a photographer and show you photography related ads. It will not matter too much which site you are on, if the site has AdSense, Google will populate that site with photography ads.

This is the logical path for Google to follow, but I'm not crazy about it and think that, to some extent, it is a bad idea. It too easily pigeon-holes a person into being one type of shopper, in essence, one type of person. Sure, I look at a lot of photography equipment, but what if I decide I want to start scuba diving? If I go to a scuba blog, will I still see ads for photography? Now, it's reasonable to assume that Google will eventually realize I am now a photographer and a scuba diver, but how long does that take?

This may water down the effectiveness of AdSense as there will always be a lag between what Google thinks my interests are and what my interest is at that moment. For instance, if I go to a blog about baby cribs to read up on those for the first time, AdSense may show me ads for photography, because that is what Google has determined my interest to be. Well, I'm not shopping for photo gear, I'm shopping for cribs. Eventually, Google will figure that out, but that is of no use to that first web site I went to. That web site owner won't get any of my clicks because they are not relevant to what I want right now. This, ironically, may hurt the most relevant web sites that show up at the very top of Google search results as you will look at those sites before Google has a chance to figure out that you are now looking for cribs.

Can I turn "Interest-Based Advertising" off?

Yes, Interest-Based Advertising can be turned off. Both as a web site owner and a surfer.

If you are a web site owner, you can go into your AdSense account and opt out of this new system in which case, ads will be served to your site they way they have been. Here is how you turn off Interest-Based Advertising. Though, Google is implying that you may not have access to the same pool of ads because some advertisers may opt to only put ads on sites that are using Interest-Based Advertising.

If you are browsing the Internet and you don't want Google to track your activity for use with this system, you can opt out of the tracking cookie here. If you want to take advantage of this new system, but want more control, you can set your preferences here.

So far, I have only talked about the potential doom and gloom of this new system, but it can be a good thing too. It will allow advertisers to target their audience much more precisely, and most importantly, on an ongoing basis. An advertiser could setup their ads to remember how you have interacted with them in the past. For instance, say I click on an AdSense ad for camera equipment on Amazon has the power now to remember the information for the next AdSense delivered ad I see from them. Maybe I clicked on an add for a specific camera and bought it. Amazon has the ability to then tailor the next ad I see from them to maybe some lens or other accessory for that camera which they currently have on sale. The interaction possibilities are almost endless and may give the consumer more timely and relevant ads. That can be good for the consumer and the web site owner because it means I will be clicking on more of their ads and they get more of Google's pennies.

And, this being Google, they are smarter then I so it is likely that they are at least aware of these pitfalls and are working to minimize them, or make them go away entirely.

I've turned off the Interest-Based Advertising on this site for now, I don't want to be part of the 'beta' project. But I will be keeping an eye on the system and experimenting with it in the coming years to see if it becomes more of a helpful or harmful service.

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