Gmail, Gator and Spam

By | April 26, 2004

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, and, 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’?

2 thoughts on “Gmail, Gator and Spam

  1. Whitney McNamara

    > 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.
    Possibly, but I still see a least a couple of significant barriers to mainstream commercial use of RSS, at least as a replacement for email.

    The first is adoption rates. If one were to take the population of Blogistan as the sample group, one would likely think that at least 90% of the online world uses an RSS reader, but I strongly suspect that this is not the case for the online population as a whole. (I’ll freely admit that I haven’t yet done the research, though, so would be happy to see any data that confirms or denies my belief.)

    I think that the de facto requirement is for either MS or AOL to include an RSS aggregator by default — either embedded into the desktop (as proposed in Longhorn) or as a function of an email reader. Until RSS is just sitting there waiting to be used, it’s going to be a tough sell getting people to install a separate program, start that program whenever they go online (along with their email reader and Web browser), find the content that they want, add the streams…it’s too much work unless there’s a good reason for it. There have been a few experiments in this area (ToolButton, Newsgator) that may bear fruit, but they’re not there yet.

    That said, until there’s a large enough potential customer base, mainstream advertisers aren’t going to get too excited about RSS.

    Even worse (from the advertiser’s perspective) is what RSS denies them: targeting and detailed reporting.

    You know nothing about the people who subscribe to the feed, and anything that you put out there goes to everyone…no targeting specific geo areas, demographics, no special offers for good customers…nothing. ToolButton has tried to address the targeting issue by building targeting ability into the RSS aggregator, but again, their actual install/usage rate is apparently not too good. This is another reason that MS seems like a likely candidate: an MS RSS aggregator has access to a lot of other information, leaving open the possibility of MS as a provider of targeted advertising.

    As far as the reporting end goes, at minimum for a commercial offering you’d need to be able to report how many times a given ad was viewed, when those views occurred, how many people clicked through to the thing being advertised…as far as I know you’d be parsing server logs on both the RSS provider and advertiser side to get at that information right now, which isn’t an ideal arrangement

    Really interesting topic, though. There’s going to be a lot more happening in this area over the coming year, and I’m confident that at least some of these issues will be dealt with. The other big question is exactly how much these changes will piss off all of us who are currently enjoying RSS in its largely non-commercial incarnation… šŸ™‚


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