Behavioral Based Ads Bad For Publishers and Scary For Users

Google just announced that it would start providing interest-based Adsense ads. I have a bit of experience with being a publisher that serves ad based on past user behavior and interests. That experience isn’t a very good one. If you are in the mood, follow along as I tell you my little tale of how behavior-based ads can be bad for everyone. (*names changed to protect the guilty and the innocent)

I run a site that is technical in nature. No surprise there, if any of you know me. I have a fair few tech-oriented sites, though, so don’t assume you know which one I’m talking about. Because I’m always interested in diversifying my income stream, I am constantly trying new ad networks to see if any are going to make me rich and famous. (Actually, I’d be happy with just rich. Fame, not so much). One such ad network that I tried was a contextual CPC type similar to Adsense, but with some distinct differences. Let’s call this network NonSense, shall we? :)

If one were to just do a quick cursory glance at NonSense, one might think it was the next big thing in contextual ad serving. It had many improvements over Adsense, with lots of wonderful enhancements for publishers, specifically. The ads’ look and feel could be customized in ways far beyond what publishers were used to being offered, so I was looking forward to seeing some nice results.

After running the ads for a while, I was contacted by a friend who was disturbed by the eerie ads he was seeing on my site. The ads were obviously targeted at him – and him alone – because they had absolutely nothing to do with my site’s content (in any stretch of the imagination), but they had everything to do with a subject that he frequently searched on. It would have been nearly impossible to call it a coincidence based on the subjects involved, so I asked an ad network rep if perhaps some ads were being targeted based upon user behavior, rather than site content.

The answer: “Yes”.

Now, here’s the problem that I noticed over time. Because ads were often targeted to a user’s past behavior and interests, two things happened.

1) Users got freaked out. Many thought that my site had somehow invaded their privacy, read their minds, or in some way had obtained control over their search history. They did not connect the ads to the company serving the ads – they connected them with me personally – so they thought I was the one invading their privacy.

2) CTR was terrible. Worse than terrible. Almost non-existant. As it turned out, my users didn’t want to see ads based upon their interests or past behavior. Those that didn’t get creeped out by them, were simply uninterested in shifting their focus from one subject to another – even if that new subject was one that interested them. They had a goal, and the ads were in no way helping them to meet that goal. The result? They never clicked the ads, and “momma didn’t make no stinkin’ money”. (Momma in this case would be me, in case I confused you along the way there).

And that, my friends, is why I hope Google abandons its behaviorally-based ad serving on Adsense. My Adsense earnings have plummeted enough over the years, thank you very much, and I’d really hate to see them reach rock bottom because of this. Not only that, but I really don’t want to creep out my users. I kinda like ‘em, ya know? :)

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12 Responses to “Behavioral Based Ads Bad For Publishers and Scary For Users”

  1. Matt Davis says:

    The tools to gauge past behaviour and interests are pretty blunt. People are using the web to look up the most odd things, which may have nothing to do with their interests but everything about disambiguation of something they’re reading about.

    No wonder people get freaked out if they think they’re being judged (ads appearing for them) according to their unsuccessful or misfired search results.

    If my satnav started to offer routes based on those I took when I got lost, I’d reprogram it with a very heavy rock.

    Recently, I heard of a horrified client who saw what ads she got when looking at her own work. ‘I don’t want that sort of ad associated with my stuff!’ she screamed. Perhaps her host was using NonSense too…

  2. DazzlinDonna says:

    Exactly, Matt. The experience isn’t pretty in many cases. I think it’s a bad move all around.

  3. simleon says:


    I confirm. I did a lot of Behavioral targeting advertising in UK and Italian markets, also with big budgets, but results where “bankruptcy”.

    Bad results, low CTR and very high cost per conversion.

  4. Garrett says:

    Behavioral targeting can produce some “interesting” results especially if the device that’s used to access the content is shared….like when your wife uses the Tivo to record The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz. Then you have your buddies over to watch a movie and they’re like, “hey why is your Tivo recording Boat Trip, Will & Grace, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Awkward.

  5. [...] Behavioral Based Ads Bad For Publishers and Scary For Users [...]

  6. Simonne says:

    I can imagine the CTR is horrible. If I think how many hours a day I search on weight loss (or any other niche I work) topics, while being far from needing any kind of diet or fitness program, you can bet I won’t click on those weight loss ads that are presented to me while I check the weather reports.

    I think that at least in my case, the personal interest searches are less than 30% of the total. How relevant can this be for me?

  7. Donna,

    Thanks for the write-up. A few of us were testing this late last year by logging into and out of Gmail accounts, clearing cookies, etc. Some of the ads feel like someone broke into your mind.

    Your example unfortunately shows how much worse it is getting, and obviously, this is not best for the users, which is supposed to be Google’s bottom line!

    Suggest everyone opt-out of Google Ad’s preferences and download the FireFox plugin to stop the cookies from being set. I’m now looking at:

  8. Julie Joyce says:

    This is going to be just as strange as when I get onto Amazon and it’s recommending the latest in gun gleaning kits, bluegrass boxed sets, and things to help reduce your cord clutter. Then I remember that my husband shares the account…

  9. Raj says:


    Content based filtering of ads is good as per me. I fully agree with the above comments that has been mentioned above



  10. [...] Donna Fontenot aka DazzlinDonna (SEO Chicks): “Behavioral Based Ads Bad For Publishers and Scary For Users” [...]

  11. Tao - board games Canada says:

    Thanks for writing about your experience as someone who is serving the content.

    Strangely enough, on the opposite end, advertising using behavioral targeting has been pretty good – on a return rate for customers. Of course, we’re not pushing out content in a large, large volume so we don’t seem to be ‘stalking’ our customers either.

  12. Linda Lee says:

    I hate this trend. I find it creepy and it really makes me mad.
    I never click any ads online, ever.
    I rarely use ads on my websites. I think there are much better ways to earn income online.

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