Google’s quest for advertising relevance

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Since March 2009, Google has been experimenting with targeted advertising to increase ad click-through rates on its popular “Ads by Google” contextual ads, that form part of the Google Display Network. Moving beyond showing ads that are simply relevant to site content pages, Google announced on Thursday last week, that the ability for advertisers to more accurately target ads at the interests of potential customers, is graduating from beta.

To try it out, I fired up Chrome, cleared out my cookies and checked out a story on Mashable about Causes, a site that allows you to utilise your personal moments such as birthdays, weddings, memorials or fun walks to raise money for charity.

Google immediately added me to three categories, namely: “Computers & Electronics – Software“, “Internet Software Online Communities – Social Networks” and “People and Society — Social Issues and Advocacy — Charity and Philanthropy“.

Given the site and content I was accessing, I’d say the categories were spot on, and it’s not surprising as Google has been categorising the interests of more than 500-million users since the program’s inception two years ago.

Next, I navigated to Techmeme — routine for me — and clicked a few of the top stories for the day. Since those stories were mostly hosted on tech sites, Google assigned a range of tech related categories to me.

Subsequently, having been profiled as a tech nerd, Google can now use a mix of its contextual, placement and interest-based advertising to show me more relevant ads, which, barring subliminal advertising, I probably still won’t click on.

What about my privacy?

When Google first launched the programme, privacy groups were freaking out, but actually this all happens anonymously.

According to Google, during this process, no personal information is collected. This is true since targeted advertising occurs whether you are logged into your Google account or not.

Google assigns you a cookie labeled “doubleclick.net” that contains a string of information similar to this:

“id=c227d4439000094|3149779/1091885/15150|t=1309010872|et=730|cs=002213fd48d30dae49e67ec908”

When you access sites that are part of the Google Display Network, Google uses the above-mentioned string to show ads related to the interests and inferred demographic categories that have been associated with it. If you clear your browser cookies, therefore, your interests are deleted with it.

Also, no ads based on sensitive information or interest categories such as race, religion, sexual orientation, health, or sensitive financial categories will be displayed — should someone be looking over your shoulder or using your computer.

Despite the reassurance of anonymity, it’s also good to know that interest categories are not being stored in plain text in the cookie. Also, Google doesn’t seem to make the interests inferred by the contents of the cookie string available via its AdWords or AdSense APIs to developers.

Which interest categories does Google associate with me?

You can check out your associated interest categories by visiting http://www.google.com/ads/preferences which also allows you to remove or add categories, or opt out of targeted advertising entirely. Annoyingly you need to download a cookie opt-out plugin for your browser to opt out permanently.

Another annoyance is that if you actually happen to like the idea of targeted advertising and add categories relevant to you, you’ll have to re-add them if you clear your cookies, as they can’t be kept permanently.

Final thoughts

Targeted advertising is a good thing. We are going to be served ads, whether we like it or not, so they might as well be relevant to our tastes. Lest we forget, ads help keep sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter free.

According to Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers, in the first quarter of 2011, online advertising revenues totalled $7.3 billion and marks a 23% increase year over year with only a slight drop-off from Q4, 2010, which at $7.45 billion was the best quarter for online ad revenue ever.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with this. If you share your computer with your girlfriend, and you’ve been trying to figure out why you are being served ads for wedding dresses, now you know. It might be time to pop the question — just sayin’.

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