Contextual Advertising: Not

by Harold Davis

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An extremely important part of Google's business is famously built upon contextual advertising: Advertisers bid on keywords using Google's AdWords software, and the winners have ads placed "contextually" on web sites whose publishers have elected to affiliate with Google using Google's AdSense software.

But "contextually" is a significant misnomer. Computers are very good at literally matching keywords, but very bad at catching the subtle nuances of context.

As a Web publisher, you find offensive ads placed by Google. For example, on Phyllis's, a site devoted to helping parents with preemies and high-risk pregnancy conditions, we get ads for thinly disguised anti-abortionists. You can deal with this one by blocking the domains in question (Google allows AdSense publishers to block up to 200 domains as "competitors.")

It's a little harder to deal with what turned up when I wrote a blog entry blasting intelligent design as a euphemism for creationism. Both the blog entry and my Main blog page for the month kept gettings ads from anti-evolutionists too numerous to block by domain.

Similarly, but a little funnier, when I wrote a blog entry commenting on a business press item comparing Google to Wal-Mart, and coming down hard on Wal-Mart, and another item just blasting Wal-Mart, both my blog items and my monthly page started getting inundated with ads urging readers to shop Wal-Mart, presumabably until they drop.

Further up the black humor scale, a blog entry comparing Terri Schiavo's fate unfavorably with being buried brain dead and coated in honey in a red ant heap draws lots of AdSense ads for ant pest control services.

Obviously, these examples are not isolated to my Web content, and are replicated millions of times over across the Web. Obviously, some "contextual" ads do work: people do click on them and end up buying goods or services. (Advertisers can measure the success rates and are not fools.)

Still, the very term "contextual" gives one hope for better, more intelligent, placements that are truly context sensitive. And, as a publisher, these stupid ads make me feel like running out and telling the world: click those ads for creationism, Wal-Mart, and ant control and cost those foolish advertisers some bucks!