Commentary

Screwing With Google

Google's formal announcement that it was feeding AdWords placements into iPhone and Android apps took me by surprise today. I thought this had started a while ago. For a couple of weeks now I have been running across these little text links in some apps. They sport a tiny blue "g" in the right corner.

My early experience is mixed with these ads. In Pandora, for instance, the geo-targeting was about right when it fed me an offer to book Maryland bands (I live right over the line in Delaware), but the link kicks me into a full Web site that is poorly identified and filled with microscopic, mobile-unfriendly text. Google is not responsible for landing pages, of course, but it is the first sign that a Web experience is being grafted onto mobile. To Pandora's credit, however, it handles the ads well. Google ads rotate in with the display banners, and the click-through keeps the user in the app (the music keeps playing).

I had a similar experience in Urbanspoon, an early tester of the Google AdWords network. The targeting was pretty good. My restaurant selector was set for Korean food and the Google ad popped up a link to a Korean chain that had a Philadelphia location. But again, the experience was geared to the Web. I got a full Web site that I had to pinch and scroll endlessly. And again, Urbanspoon was smart and kind enough to keep me in their app. If I had been kicked over to the Safari browser for this, I would have been ticked off.

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I know that many of my friends in the industry disagree with me, but I think the full Web experience on mobile is wholly unappealing. In this case, it's not just that a landing site is unlikely to format well even on the iPhone, but that you don't know what kind of load the site will carry. Sitting on top of my router this is fine, but out there on the patchy AT&T 3G network, it will make me think thrice before clicking a Google text link. Along the way I have gotten some blank screens as landing pages and some customary Google targeting misfires.

I am also not sure about the topic targeting. My "Pizza" hunt in Urbanspoon got me to my nearby Pizza Hut in Newark, with a Google counterpoint ad for Papa John's -- but in Philly. That's not so bad. But if I am listening to my custom "The Band" channel on Pandora, do I really want to book a band or listen to music? OK, so I figure I might screw with the machine. I put on my daughter's Megadeth channel. I get a Google ad for DUI lawyers.

"Carly Simon radio" renders Sentinel Self Storage. I am struggling for the connection. And then in subsequent songs the DUI ads cycle back in. Because James Taylor- and Carole King-lovers are known for their intemperance? Or I just look a little woozy?

It gets better. "Born to Run" radio kicks me over to a spa site ("Be Truly Well"), which seems a likely place to run into Bruce.

Now here is an interesting one. I create an Eminem station and get an ad that finally seems right on target for "Music Video." It links to Bing.com/shopping. No joke. The best targeting Google mustered for me kicked me over to Bing to buy music videos.

To paraphrase Don Rickles, I kid because I love. In fact, I like the fact that Google is here more obviously because it does help validate the platform as an ad vehicle. Indeed, the text links here look better and are more visible than their Web counterparts. The prose is not very compelling. But with that higher visibility, the flaws in the system become more apparent. So far I am not seeing any interesting calls to action. Well, I guess "Be Truly Well" is close. On the other hand, the user experience is still cobbled and half-assed. The worst aspect of mobile advertising is that the consumer really doesn't know what he or she will get on the other side of a click, and in this sense Google isn't helping by dumping us onto indecipherable Web pages that make us work to absorb the pitch. Or telling a James Taylor fan he may have a drinking problem.

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