Contextual Ads and the Little Guy

Last week, Google expanded its contextual ad program to allow many more content sites to carry its paid listings. The new Google AdSense program allows owners of even very small sites to sign up for the program in a self-serve manner, similar to becoming an Amazon affiliate.

Google’s contextual ad program, Google Content-Targeted Advertising, was officially launched in March. In that program, Google negotiated deals with large Web sites to integrate its paid listings into their pages. Smaller Web sites were not able to participate.

“When we rolled out content ads a couple months ago, we had set a threshold of 20 million page views per month for Web sites we’d consider for the current program,” said Susan Wojcicki, director of product management for Google’s ad syndication programs. “We found there are huge number of very high quality Web sites that did not meet that threshold.”

The new AdSense program bridges that gap. Any site can apply, even those with only a few thousand page views per month.

“We built an online, automated way for Web sites to come to Google, sign up, and apply to be accepted into our network,” Wojcicki said. “This program will be a way for Web sites to earn money by putting ads on their pages.”

Sites accepted into the program simply insert some short JavaScript code into their Web pages. Google will deliver a banner or skyscraper ad unit containing paid listings.

Although the program opens the door to many sites, not all will be accepted. Google will review sites to ensure they’re in line with certain program policies. Among those not eligible are sites that include content about drugs, pornography, or gambling.

Google Ads and Blogs

Google’s policies do not allow “personal pages” to participate. What’s a personal page? That’s not defined. A traditional personal home page that lists things such as interests, hobbies, or family news certainly wouldn’t be eligible. Some blogs may also find themselves rejected under this rule.

“In general, we’re looking at this stage for Web sites with more standardized content,” Wojcicki said. “Blogs are an example of a gray area, and we will review them on a case-by-case basis to see if they fit our network.”

This will be difficult for Google, because blogging tools aren’t used solely by people wishing to express personal views. Some use them simply because they’re an easy way to publish a Web site focused on a particular topic.

Gary Price’s great search and research site, ResourceShelf, is an example. Gary moved to‘s tool, now owned by Google, not out of any great love for blogging. It was simply an efficient way to publish his content, he’s told me.

ResourceShelf is so tightly focused around a specific topic it should be a natural for Google’s program. But what about blogger Jeremy Zawodny’s site?

Zawodny has a section of blog archives specifically covering Linux, which might be perfect for Linux-related ads (should he wish to carry them). His blog’s home page is far more diverse. Last week it included a post about determining the optimal temperature for Heineken beer. Not exactly the standardized content Google wants.

Why the fuss about standardized content? Google’s contextual technology automatically delivers paid listings deemed relevant to a page, based on that page’s content. So a blog that covers a wide variety of topics may be difficult to target.

For example, the jimpunk blog is about, well… it has a lot of pictures that have no apparent unifying theme, to me at least. But since this site makes use of the free Blogger service, it already carries Google’s contextual ads. This was done as part of Google’s initial rollout of the contextual program.

What are the ads about? “Iraqi Most Wanted Cards.” Why? Part of the page flows an article that appears to be about the Iraqi conflict. As best I can tell, this may be what causes Google to make a bad guess: that ads for “Most Wanted” cards might be relevant to this page.

Helping the Web, But…

Google makes the pitch its ad program should be a boon to everyone who uses the Web, as the revenue will help publishers continue to create good content for users.

“From the user standpoint, this will be good. Not only will it fund quality publishers to produce quality content, it will also produce a better user experience, because they’ll be able to see ads that are related to the content,” Wojcicki said.

An excellent Business 2.0 article explores in more depth the idea contextual ads help support good Web content. It’s an idea I buy into. When I got involved with building Web sites back in 1995, I always hoped there would be a way to connect sites with good content and advertisers to fund their work. Google’s program certainly helps in this direction.

A major downside to the expansion of Google’s contextual ad program is it leaves the company even more vulnerable to accusations it may favor sites carrying its ads in Google search results, as I explained when the program first announced.

At that time, Google denied this would happen. The company even added a FAQ answer denying it. Google cofounder Larry Page reemphasized this last month, when I spoke with him about the issue.

“That’s not something we would ever consider doing. We wouldn’t bias our search results based on the monetary relationships we have with people,” he said, “It would be sort of dumb for us from an economic perspective. Let’s make a little bit more money and in return get everyone in the world upset.”

Related reading

Brand Top Level Domains