Read me first
Don't email me about Google's wheeze for targeted advertising
|wheeze||(v.)||breathe with difficulty|
|wheeze||(n.)||breathing with a husky or whistling sound|
|wheeze||(n.)||(Briticism) a clever or amusing scheme or trick : "a clever wheeze probably succeeded in neutralizing the German espionage threat"|
- The Guardian
- Thursday August 30 2007
If a series of recent patent filings by Google are any indication, web advertising may be about to get a whole lot friendlier - and the definition of spam a whole lot fuzzier. Google's system for selling and distributing advertisements tied to search results has been fabulously lucrative. In the first six months of this year, the scheme, which encompasses the AdWords auction and the AdSense publishing network, brought in close to $4bn (£2bn) in revenue and more than $1bn in profits.
But the automated system is far from perfect. Despite the great sophistication of Google's software, the vast majority of the adverts the company serves up are ignored by web surfers. Either they don't see the ads, or they see them but don't click on them.
But Google wants to change that. Its patent applications point to a new, much more personal way of delivering advertising. Unlike AdWords and AdSense, the method relies not just on software algorithms but on manual labour and individual judgment.
Ordinary people would select ads, or ad themes, and Google would then insert the adverts into their emails, instant messages and other personal communications. You and I, in short, would help Google to get the right ads in front of the right people at the right time.
The system, as described in the patent filings, has three major components. The first is what Google researchers call "a universal distributed search system [that] allows users to find and distribute search results (possibly including advertisements) to those with whom they communicate".
Google has seen that when people write emails or other messages, they often include links to related information on the internet.
The tool described in the patent would automate the discovery and inclusion of such references, making the process simpler and faster. In essence, it provides a new way for Google to distribute search results - not from search engine to user but from friend to friend.
That would also give Google information about the content of personal messages. The system's second component uses that information as the basis for a tool that allows people to insert related ads into their emails and other communications. The ads could either be inserted automatically, as in the AdSense system, or chosen individually by the sender.
Google provides an example of how that might work: a woman "sends an email to members of her book club informing the members of what next month's book is". Under its scenario, she includes in the email some Google search results such as a picture of the book cover or a link to an online review. When her friends open the email, Google automatically inserts "content-relevant ads" into the message. These ads might include an Amazon one "offering free shipping for purchases made in the next 48 hours".
The final component is a reward system to provide people with incentives to include ads in their personal communications.
As Google explains it, the rewards could include cash payments, credits for future product purchases, or "an enhanced reputation or reputation increase" - whatever that means. Google would, in effect, pay us to pitch ads to our friends and acquaintances.
It's an ingenious system, but there's something repugnant about it. It seems to blur the line between personal messages and spam. Do we really want our friends to send us ads along with their news or greetings? Do we want to be personal ad syndicators ourselves, earning money according to how adept we are at pitching ads to our mates?
Google's automated ad delivery system has been enormously successful, generating huge revenues and profits for the company. But the automatic targeting of ads remains imperfect.
The new system would help solve that problem - but it might well result in the distribution of more and "more relevant" adverts, giving a further boost to its earnings. But it would also mean the injection of commerce, and commercial motives, into the most intimate of electronic communications.
Nicholas Carr's next book will be The Big Switch. He blogs at roughtype.com
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