September 26, 2003 3:10 PM PDT

Automated search ads can boomerang

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Free speech advocate Joan Bertin says she was surprised when she recently typed the words "child pornography" into a search engine and two advertisements appeared.

The ads--one selling services for a criminal defense attorney and the other for an adult Web site--came courtesy of Google, whose free software powers searches on the National Coalition Against Censorship's (NCAC) Web site.

NCAC Executive Director Bertin suddenly found herself in a rare position, urging self-censorship on Google in a letter sent to CEO Eric Schmidt on Monday: Either the ads had to go from the site, or Google.

"The biggest concern for me at the moment, although I'm not at all happy about pornography ads, is that it looks like we may have some connection to (the lawyers)," Bertin said in an interview, adding that she worries about the organization's credibility in such a case. "It's really an untenable situation...because we can't appear to be endorsing lawyers."

Advertising in traditional media is well-regulated when it comes to sensitive products and services such as gambling, tobacco, liquor and adult services. But few such rules have touched the Net, where companies that push novel advertising technologies are making up the rules as they go along.

The situation is particularly acute in the arena of automated search advertising systems, which have proliferated largely through the efforts of Google and its rival Overture Services. Although Net companies say they are working hard to establish appropriate guidelines, there are still kinks to be worked out, analysts have said, and mistakes happen.

In another layer of complexity, Google and Overture's advertisements frequently find their way onto partner and affiliated Web sites--like NCAC's--whose advertising policies may differ from their own.

"Usually when advertising is placed on an automatic basis, there are some keyword combinations that you don't think of and they're learning through some bad experiences," said Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

The adult Web site ads tied to the phrase "child pornography" stopped appearing on the Google and NCAC sites sometime after Sept. 19, although the promotions for attorneys still appear.

Keeping it clean
Google said it does not discuss its actions regarding specific advertisers. But a representative said the company has several policies and procedures to ensure inappropriate ads do not appear on its own site or on partner sites.

The Mountain View, Calif., company said it has a strict policy that bans the sale of controversial search keywords such as "weapons." It also prohibits links to child pornography sites and does not sell advertising for that term to adult Web sites. However, it said it does sell ads on a range of topics that may be related to the subject, such as for counselors or psychologists.

Google's ads are automatically filtered before they go live on its own site, the company said. In addition, it has a team of editors review all ads before they go live on partner sites.

"Google takes the problem of child pornography very seriously," a company representative said. "When we receive reports of child pornography in the Google search index, we immediately remove the offending results from the index and contact the appropriate authorities. The same is true for sites advertising through Google AdWords."

Pasadena, Calif.-based Overture also said that it does not allow any adult-related site to bid on the term "child pornography," but it does sell placement to attorneys pitching related legal services. An Overture representative said its editors are trained to spot and pull any inappropriate ads that are remotely related to the adult industry.

Glitch patrol
So-called pay-per-click advertising has proliferated among search engines, helping resuscitate the online ad market. Paid search revenue is expected to double to $1.6 billion in 2003 compared with last year, according to Jupiter Research. That's about one-quarter of the $6.3 billion in total online advertising sales estimated for this year.

Search engines typically sell advertisers text-based links that appear atop or adjacent to search results related to specific keywords such as "digital cameras" to "pornography." Marketers bid for keyword terms and the highest bidder gets top billing in search results, paying only when visitors click on its links. Those ads appear automatically when people search on terms at Google or any number of affiliated Web sites, as well as on an increasing number of general Web pages at partner sites.

To broaden their ad networks, Google and Overture each introduced "content targeted," or contextual advertising, this year. Those programs allow Web publishers to display search-related keyword advertising on general Web pages. To do this, the technology analyzes the content on Web pages to determine which keywords they are close to. It then matches the ads to the pages.

Though the search companies say their contextual ads are highly targeted, the automated systems may leave Web advertisers vulnerable to mistakes, with some pitches missing their mark wildly.

In one recently publicized case, Google sold placement for the keyword "suitcase" to a luggage company, and its ad appeared near a story on the New York Post's site about a murder victim whose parts were found in a suitcase.

Google and Overture also both use what's called "broad match" technology, which allows a marketer's ad for a single keyword to also appear for a combination of related keywords. That means an ad keyed to the word "ring" could turn up adjacent to the term "diamond ring." Also, an adult-related ad keyed to the word "sex" could land on sites categorized by other words related to "sex."

Because marketers pay only when people click on their ads, Google and its rivals stand to make more money by expanding their ad networks and by promoting broad-match technology. But the push to advance their advertising occasionally puts them in an awkward spot, when they have to manually fix ads that appear in the wrong place.

In the past, Google's approach has been to favor automation over human intervention, but sometimes it intervenes or finds a way to write something into the code so it becomes automatic, said Chris Sherman, editor of Search Engine Watch.

Getting personal
Search industry experts say that ultimately, the success of ad technology systems depends on the relevancy of the ads it sends to people. Relevancy hinges on knowing consumers' tastes, or personalizing search--an innovation that all the major search engines are working on, but have yet to perfect.

So far, contextual ads do not draw responses as well as Web search ads do, according to research firm NewGate. That has prompted some marketers to opt out of including their promotions in content-targeted programs. At a recent industry conference, a majority of the advertisers on one panel said that they would like more control, when using Google's and Overture's advertising services, in determining where their ads are placed.

NCAC's Bertin also wants more control. She said she hopes Google lets the organization's site opt out of the sponsored advertising so that it can continue to use its free software. Otherwise, she says it "can't accept a service that has these kinds of strings attached to it."

 

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