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Google To Deliver "More Interesting" Ads

Last week, Google launched a new advertising initiative that could make the ads you see on the Web more relevant, a little scarier or both.

In a post titled "Making Ads More Interesting," the Web firm announced that it would make a non-trivial shift in the way it presents ads online. Instead of simply finding an ad from its inventory that matches what you're reading right now -- say, an ad for hotels when you search for lodging in a particular city, or a blurb for some electronics retailer's HDTV sale when you're reading a review of a new high-def LCD -- Google will try to find ads that match your interests over time, as recorded by Google using a cookie file saved to your computer.

Today we are launching "interest-based" advertising as a beta test on our partner sites and on YouTube. These ads will associate categories of interest -- say sports, gardening, cars, pets -- with your browser, based on the types of sites you visit and the pages you view. We may then use those interest categories to show you more relevant text and display ads.


When you say "interest-based advertising," it's easy to think that the Google hive mind will now know everything about your activities online. That's not the case, as a "how it works" article (which should have been linked to from that "Making Ads More Interesting" post) explains:

* This tracking doesn't store your name or e-mail; you are only a number.

* It's only tied to one computer.

* It's easy to opt out of this entirely by trashing your browser's cookie file.

But Google is also allowing users to see the information Google has collected about their interests, then edit it -- which is something I've never seen an advertiser offer before. You can visit its ad-preferences page and see exactly what topics Google thinks you care about. At this page, you can also opt your computer out of this program permanently.

To judge from what this page displays on my own computer at home, I remain a cypher to Google: "No interest categories are associated with your ads preferences so far." What shows up on your screen?

(I realize that, since your reply will feature your user ID, I'm asking you to cough up what could be all sorts of salacious details. So just say that you saw all this info on your coworker's computer or your boss's machine, and we'll all agree to believe each other about that.)

Until I see what sort of profile Google has built of my interests -- there are a few other computers I have to check -- I'm not quite sure what to think. Boringly irrelevant ads don't do anything for me. Nor do those that are annoyingly irrelevant, like the ads for dating services I've seen on the MySpace page on which I list myself as married. I will, however, gladly pay attention to an ad that's clever and entertaining.

And, last I checked, my employer and many others publishing content on the Web could use some extra advertising revenue these days. (Note that today, the navigation banner atop our home page appears in gold, as part of some deal our ad-sales folks cooked up with a phone-book site.)

Google doesn't have the cleanest record. It can be pushy and intrusive; it would be a mistake to take its high-minded explanations on faith. But other ad efforts could be considerably less appealing. For example, are you prepared to see bigger banner ads that occupy a quarter of a third of a page, then stay in your view as you scroll down?

So you tell me: How obnoxious would an ad have to be for you to stop visiting the site hosting it? What if it was a site that you wanted to see stay in business?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 16, 2009; 12:12 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , The Web  
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No interest categories are associated with your ads preferences so far.

Ah well. Good ol boring wiredog...

Whenever I clean out my Spam folder on Gmail I see ads like "Creamy Spam Broccoli Casserole." linked to a cooking site.

So the gold bar is an advertising thing? I figured it was just the webmonkeys playing around with the design. I guess that, as an advertisement, it isn't working.

Posted by: wiredog | March 16, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Ads? That's what Adblock is for...

Posted by: borealis998 | March 16, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Google isn't really candid about its future data collection plans. Its newly launched targeted ads are the proverbial tip of what could eventually be a full-scale behavioral profiling and tracking system (which Google euphemistically calls "interest-based)." Nor does Google--and other online marketers--explain to users how the ads have been crafted to foster additional data collection and other consumer behaviors. Such disclosure should be required.
Behavioral targeting isn't really a system designed to deliver more "relevant" ads. It's part of a larger set of digital marketing strategies that is ultimately about influencing a users actions without their full understanding and control over the process. That's why Congress and the FTC must act soon, to protect consumer welfare.

Posted by: jchester1 | March 16, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

"Your browser's cookies seem to be disabled. Ads Preferences will not work until you enable cookies in your browser. How do I enable cookies?"

Guess I won't be getting interest-based ads.

Posted by: txJosh16 | March 16, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

This column takes Google at its word when it claims that it is merely trying to stick your surfing behavior into broad interest categories. But why not assume that Google will save the URL of every site you visit that shows AdSense or a DoubleClick ad? That practice would be consistent with Google's practices over the last ten years.

Google knows I read your column today because you run AdSense on your column page. I didn't even have to click on anything on your page to get Google's new cookie with the globally-unique ID.

The point is that between AdSense and DoubleClick ads, Google will be tracking those who visit over half of all pages on the web that carry any ads. That's because they have well over half of the web advertising market.

Posted by: pir123 | March 16, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Ditto for:

No interest categories are associated with your ads preferences so far.

I volunteered some preferences, including tech and news. (Not paranoid at all.)

There are sites that rarely visit because of advertising overkill. TUAW (The Unofficial Apple Weblog) is one of them. I stopped being a regular TUAW more than a year ago.

BTW, my banner color looks normal. Is that because I'm surfing in Safari?

Posted by: query0 | March 17, 2009 5:03 AM | Report abuse

Works even better than Adblock plus, when you're just reading simple news or blogs.

You don't really need a lot of pictures or flashy crap in that case, and I use it a lot. Black and white old skool, baby.

TUAW probably would be a good site to try it on.

Google and its adsense can naff off.

Posted by: fonkyou | March 17, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Useful discussion of some of these points by Michael Horowitz at

Posted by: hylen | March 17, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Google's purchase of DoubleClick ended the positive opinion i previously had of the company. Google's primary interest has shifted away from ad-supported user services toward corporate services of datamining and ad delivery. The user no longer benefits from Google's pioneering software development - they are unwitting pawns in the game of marketing research. But there is a choice; some of Google's formerly cutting-edge software is being overtaken by the low-cost or free open-source software that doesn't bog down the user experience with adware. Latest Google consumer product introductions, Android and Chrome, aren't particularly impressive compared to the competition.

I block all third-party cookies including all cookies to Google's ad servers. Further, I employ AdBlock for all advertising that:
1) requires user interaction to silence/close/scroll past to see the real page content.
2) performs any operations on my computer (such as opening a new window),
3) significantly slows down the machine (heavy graphics, video, ridiculous volumes of cookie traffic)
4) redirects to a site that I didn't specify.
5) employ scripts (Flash) that I can't control/pause/turn off.

Despite this, i still see plenty of advertising on the internet. I can't even imagine how horrible the user experience must be for people who don't actively block the most aggregious advertising and take control of their own computers. There must be a lot of lemmings if they're willing to allow web companies slowly continue to ramp up internet content to drown out useful information.

Posted by: roule | March 20, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

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