Tag Archives: Contextual advertising

The Pop Up Piggyback

Is it just me, or have these interstitial ads or whatever they call themselves suddenly become ubiquitous, and no less annoying for it? They now seem to be everywhere (even O’Reilly uses them, shockingly, although it does offer a way to disable them). These are ads, courtesy of companies like Vibrant Media IntelliTXT, that add underlined links to certain words on a website which, when you move your mouse over them, pop up an ad that’s tangentially related to the word in question. This one, for example:

Intellitxt

The ad is for digital cameras. The word link is “review”. The piece itself is about solar-powered garden lights from one of my favorite gadget sites, the long running Gadgeteer. But these ads drive me nuts. Move your mouse over any of the nine links on that article and you’ll get a popup window like the above. Few of them are useful or relevant, as the following study reveals:

  • AC adapter – as in “There’s something really cool about using the power of the sun instead of the power of an AC adapter, when it comes to powering products” — throws up an ad for Laptop AC adapters
  • Review – as in “that’s why I was more than happy to review a solar powered garden accent light” — throws up an ad for Digital Cameras
  • Light weight – as in “The product is composed of a durable and UV protected resin material that looks very much like stone, while remaining light weight” — throws up an ad for Light weight (sic. The ad text is for “Shop for great deals on light weight and millions of other products”. No idea what they’re talking about)
  • Picture — as in “One clue that this might be the case [i.e. that the product cracks; They’re thorough in their reviews over there] is the picture hanger built into the back of the stone” — throws up ad for Free Digital Photo Software
  • Battery – as in “On the back of the stone, you see the battery compartment” — throws up ad for PDA batteries
  • Batteries — as in “Two rechargeable nickel-cadmium AA batteries are included and pre-installed” — throws up ad for Siemens Cordless Phone Batteries
  • Rechargeable batteries — as in “pre-installed rechargeable batteries store energy to power the light at night” — throws up ad for Sanyo rechargeable batteries, the first ad in this bunch which is vaguely relevant to the context.
  • Photo — as in “The built-in photo sensor automatically activates the light” — throws up an ad for Musical Slideshow software
  • Flash — as in “Here’s a picture of the stone that I took without a flash” — throws up an ad for Pentax SLR Digital Flash, arguably relevant but so specific you have to wonder whether anyone is really going to be reading the piece and needing a Pentax SLR Digital Flash
  • Conclusion: Out of 9 ads, 1.5 might be possibly considered useful to the reader.

I’ve whinged about this before (and before), believing it was too intrusive and likely to create a conflict of interest on the part of content creators who may be influenced to insert words that are more likely to match contextual words sold to advertisers. In the example above, for example, a less scrupulous content producer than The Gadgeteer might have chosen, or be encouraged to choose “photo sensor” over “photosensor” (the latter spelling slightly more popular online than the former) because the word “photo” would attract more ads. That’s not a sinister example, but what if the ad sellers forwarded a list of words popular among advertisers, which would steer content producers into putting those words into their writing?

(Vibrant Media says that “IntelliTXT ad units are delivered in real-time and deployed after the article has been published by the website. This is an automated process that cannot influence, or be influenced by the Editorial Team at this website or any other partner publication.” It also includes in its guidelines (PDF) a line: “Vibrant Media strongly encourages publishers not to implement IntelliTXT in late breaking news, political coverage, or other news channels that Vibrant Media deems to be controversial or inappropriate.”)

But the conflict of interest issue (news websites like Forbes.com stopped dealing with IntelliTXT, apparently over this issue) is less important to me than the annoyance and befuddlement that comes with these faux links. There is one real link in Julie’s review but it’s lost in there. First off, it’s the same color as the IntelliTXT ads, but it’s not double underlined, and it’s covered, when the mouse moves over the line above, by an IntelliTXT pop up (see if you can spot it in the screenshot above.) I find these ads annoying, distracting, and not a little confusing. When you compare it to the contextual ads displayed alongside content, you can’t help wondering whether this is a big step backwards for online content. (The ads alongside Julie’s review include one on Solar Powered Fountains and one on Solar battery chargers. I’d argue both those are a darned sight more relevant than any of the interstitials.)

Vibrant Media call this kind of advertising “user-driven advertising”. How is it user-driven? It says that “IntelliTXT helps empower users to view relevant advertising on their own terms.” Relevant? I think not. How “empower”, exactly? “Own terms”? I’d argue IntelliTXT piggy backs a fine tradition of hyperlinking — the vision and bedrock of the World Wide Web to sucker users into mistaking a popup ad for a genuine link.

Vibrant Media sells the idea to advertisers as a way to “Use words to brand. Cut through the online advertising clutter”. Actually, I’d argue it adds to the clutter, and, as the example above shows, has nothing to do with “branding” as anyone I know might understand it.

So what can one do? First off, IntelliTXT isn’t loading anything onto your computer. The ads are sleazy, but the actual implementation isn’t. If you’re a Firefox user, install Greasemonkey and then this IntelliTXT Disabler script. The IntelliTXT links will load, briefly appear and then you won’t see them no more. If you’re not a Firefox user, get it. Sure, websites need advertising to survive, but lets make sure they are either smart ads, funny ads, ads that are relevant to the content, ads that don’t mislead the reader, and, finally, ads that don’t get in the way.

IntelliTXT, Forbes And The Rise Of The Misleading Link

Where is the line between editorial independence and the advertisers who make a media publication viable?

Forbes, DMNews reports (thanks Online Journalism.com), has started included ’embedded ads’ in its news stories via Vibrant Media, a specialist in contextual advertising. These ads are links matching related words — car, house, music, that sort of thing. With nearly 5 million visitors in June, Forbes is Vibrant Media’s biggest client for IntelliTXT. As DMNews says, “IntelliTxt links are double underlined in blue to set them off from non-paid hyperlinks, which are in blue but not underlined. When a user hovers over an IntelliTxt link, the listings display a pop-up box with a ‘sponsored link’ heading and site description.”

I’ve written before about how I believe this is the wrong way to go. (Here’s a post I did on Vibrant Media last December, where I concluded that the whole thing was misleading.) At least with Forbes’ ads, the pop-up box informs the user where they would go should they click on the link. I have to confess I wasn’t able to find a single ad on Forbes’ site yet.

But there’s still plenty of things wrong with this. First off, context is everything. While the genre calls itself contextual, it is actually merely grabbing related words and turning them into links: The perils of this are legion. For example, ‘car’ may make a good for Ford ad in a piece on what kind of SUV to buy, but isn’t going to look so hot in a story about a major accident.

The bigger problem here is, as DMNews points out, online journalism is still trying to establish itself. As a journalist, to find one’s words mined for possible commercial links would smack of cheapness, and might lead to pressure from marketing departments to include more marketable words in their story. Or to edit them to make it so? Or to include references to specific companies so the link can be IntelliTXTed? How will journalists react to see their copy fiddled with in this way?

Then there’s the reader. How useful — read relevant — are these ads going to be? Watching IntelliTXT in action elsewhere I would say not very much. By contrast I’ve found Google’s AdSense listings, which appear to the right of search results, to be relevant, certainly less intrusive, and I actually launch searches some times just to see whether there are related or rival products out there I’m missing. Now that’s useful advertising.

Gmail, Gator and Spam

Gmail: Better than spam?  

ClickZ reports that an interesting side effect of Google’s new ad-supported email application, Gmail, are contextual ads from competitors. “Because the contextual ads are targeted based on e-mail message content, as determined by Google’s technology, commercial messages are the ones most likely to trigger ads. That’s because they’re most likely to contain commercial product or brand names, for which Google’s AdWords advertisers frequently buy keywords,” writes ClickZ’s Pamela Parker.

A recent newsletter from fashion vendor Neiman Marcus, for example, triggered ads with the headlines “Kate Spade Handbags,” “Ferragamo at Neoluxury” and “Prada Handbags.” Listings were for BizRate.com, Neoluxury.com and FinestDesigners.com, respectively. Interestingly, all of these must have been triggered purely by the subject line — “Salvatore Ferragamo: Shop the spring collection of shoes, handbags, and more” – since the email content was in the form of pictures, “none of which display by default in the Gmail client,” says ClickZ. What’s more, in a default view in Gmail, a reader would only see the competitors’ ads unless they selected to display external images.

The ClickZ article — itself entitled “Gmail: The Next Gator?” — suggests the situation is “akin to the kind of competitive pop-up ads that have generated controversy (and legal action) for Claria, the renamed company that fires its own ads to users, blotting out those designed to be there by a website’s creator.

What’s interesting here is that, tied in with Google’s recent decision to allow advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords they don’t own, you could see “a message from Banana Republic (for example), simply because of its subject line, trigger ads from J. Crew, Eddie Bauer and the like”.

I haven’t mulled over all the consequences of this, but I don’t see it as exactly similar to Gator. An email newsletter is not facing the obliteration or alteration of its message, design and website integrity in the same way a Gatored website is. But I can see a couple of other possible outcomes:

  • Google’s Gmail suddenly makes a whole lot more commercial sense. Marketers can reach into your inbox more effectively than any spammer. If I sold Gucci handbags, for example, all I have to do is buy ads for every competing brand of fashion handbag and I could be sure that my ads would reach every Gmail account holder interested in the subject, because they’re bound at some point to write about it in an email, or receive an email on it, either from a friend or a supplier;
  • I would imagine this would prod marketing newsletters to move to RSS quite quickly. There they can be a little more confident, for now, that their ‘message’ is not diluted by by contextual ads.

I think this will be more relevant than the discussion about privacy. End users might be quite happy to get contextual ads alongside their handbag newsletter. But they might be more alarmed if they see contextual ads for psychiatric help if they get an email from a friend describing how they went ‘crazy’ on Saturday night, or, more seriously, ads for cancer treatment if they discuss how a family member is coping with his prostate. When does contextual advertising go beyond ‘well targeted’ to become ‘scarily intrusive’?