Trouble Already with "The Next Big Thing"

You didn't have to attend the recent Jupiter/ClickZ AdForum to know that "search" has become the Internet's "next big thing" with estimates of spending high enough for some to say search is "saving the online advertising industry."

All the hyperbole aside (yes, search is cool but in the end it will not be any more effective than other ad units targeted by a combination of audience demographics and behavior) there are a few flies in the (an)ointment.

Search has morphed from just classified-looking listings returned from a word or phrase search to "contextually-placed" search results. This means that you can buy a search word from Google or Overture and have it appear not only as a listing on a results page, but also in a box on certain web pages containing contextually relevant editorial. So, you buy socket wrench and it shows up on auto repair pages of the search engine's distribution partners. Seems like a pretty simply and effective way to tap into the consumer mind set.

But what happens, asks Danny Sullivan, Editor of Search Engine Watch when "travel ads appear (next to) articles about airplane crashes or ads for clothes dryers appear on a story about a child dying in a dryer."

The New York Post online recently ran a Google-served ad for a luggage dealer next to a story about a murder victim' body parts found in a suitcase. Before that an ad running on Yahoo! News (presumably served by Overture) featured a Nokia phone next to a story about three Africans who died trying to retrieve a cell phone that had fallen down a latrine.

According to Sullivan, in Google's system, ads are placed on pages automatically, based on what Google believes the page to be about. Overture's system also uses automation to help determine what keywords a page is relevant for. Many pages, Overture claims, will also be reviewed by a human editor, to ensure the technology has assigned keywords correctly.

But, notes Sullivan, a targeting mistake is "a problem for the sites hosting the ads, rather than advertisers because a poorly targeted ad isn't likely to attract a click and thus hit the advertiser's pocketbook." (Search as you will recall is a CPC deal.)

Offline publications, especially the newsmagazines which from time to time have to report on unpleasant subjects, have long-standing agreements with advertises to pull ads away from stories or entirely out of issues if certain disasters occur. For example, the airline ads are pulled when there is a story about a plane crash. This is possible because the ad traffic management process is pretty tame compared to the Internet.

The same thing that will make search a formidable player in Internet advertising - its scalability - is the exactly the thing that will provide the opportunity for the kind of targeting errors Sullivan writes about. When you are trying to manage the placement of thousands of ads across million of pages on thousands of sites, there is no way possible to monitor the compatibility of the ad with the adjacent context.

It's not unlike the problem that PR has trying to put a dollar value on a story placement. Especially those who like to claim stories have a dollar value similar to the same space bought as advertising. With the added boost of having that all-important "editorial endorsement." Great news: your company gets in The New York Times. Bad news: you are in a round up of companies on Wall Street's death-watch list.

Contextual placement is very effective, not only on the web, but in all media. But for it to work to best advantage on the Internet, the process cannot be fully automated.

No one has yet invented software for good judgment.

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