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? icon_smile-3144602

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? icon_smile-3144602

Tags: Adsense, behavioral, contextual