Contextual Advertising In Context, Part 2: Google Goes Beyond Search

Last time, we discussed Google’s new product, Google Content-Targeted Advertising. The product will likely accelerate the already rapid growth of contextual advertising. It also marks Google offering a second nonsearch product within a month, following on the company’s acquisition of blog firm Pyra Labs.

Discussion list posts regarding Google’s move into contextual advertising claim it’s evidence the company is no longer solely about search, as Google always promised it would be. It’s a fair assessment. Google’s entry into the contextual ad space creates an ad network product independent of search. There’s no “search” reason to explain why Google must place its ads on Web pages.

From a business perspective, Google must remain competitive. If competitors expand their search-oriented paid listings into the contextual space, Google needs to as well, to please both advertisers and portal partners.

Google famously painted itself into a corner with oft-issued statements along the lines of, “We’ll be focused on search.” Now, the company is forced to walk across that wet floor.

The acquisition is proof Google voluntarily took the walk. There was no search need to purchase Blogger I can see, as I’ve previously written. Indeed, it appears Blogger was bought because it was probably cheap and Google guessed it could figure out something to do with it. The deal to buy Blogger was “signed without any real plan,” the New York Times reported, based on information it says came from those familiar with the acquisition.

The deal was great for Blogger and will probably be great for Google. Yet it’s an odd way for a company professing to be “laser-focused on search” to do business. Unless, of course, Google itself doesn’t recognize how it has changed.

What does Google think? According to a company statement:

Google continues to be focused on search. Search innovation is key to Google, and content-targeted advertising is built based on the sophisticated technology used for keyword targeting on search pages. This new service extends the reach created by the search-based advertising program and is not a replacement for the existing program.

Will Contextual Ads Erode Trust in Google Search?

Though Google must move into contextual ads for business reasons, this may potentially damage many users’ trust that Google delivers “unbiased” search results.

All search results are biased. Crawler-based search engines favor some types of content and dislike others. Google’s results may now be accused of being biased for financial reasons.

Google, widely acknowledged to handle more search requests than any competitor, now has a potential interest in routing searchers to specific sites. Ideally, Google earns via paid links on its own site. Now, contextual ads give the company a second chance to make money if the first-line ads on its own site fail. If Google ranks sites that carry its ads higher than those without, it’ll increase the odds of earning this secondary income.

Google always said it didn’t offer a paid inclusion system for fear that selling inclusion into its editorial results could spark consumer mistrust of those results. Contextual ads establish precisely the connection between revenue and editorial results the company has long avoided.

Even if Google plays fair (the company history indicates it will), it’s guaranteed you’ll hear accusations of favoritism as the contextual ad program enlarges. Concerns Blogger content will be favored over other blogs is has already been voiced.

Google’s response? According to another statement:

Our relationship with content sites does not in any way influence Google’s search results. As you know, Google’s search results are completely separate from content targeting and our advertising programs in general.

Advertiser Concerns Over Contextual Ads

In part one, I discussed concerns computer users and publishers have with contextual ads. Advertisers have their own concerns, particularly whether the ads will convert.

Advertisers traditionally bought paid listings at search engines with the expectation the listings will appear in “search mode.” Only active searchers see the ads, after they make a specific query. Anecdotally, consumers in search mode convert extremely well, which makes sense. They want something, and the paid listings promise to fulfill that want.

Contextual ads are different. Some consumers who view them may be in search mode. They might read an article about a particular topic, then see a paid listing that seems to offer an answer to that topic. Others may be in “browse mode,” viewing a paid listing more out of curiosity than to fulfill a want or need. Will browsers convert as well as searchers?

Google says they will. Research it’s conducted over the past few months finds browsers convert as well as searchers. Advertisers can conduct their own research by testing the program. They can opt out of Google’s contextual ad program if conversion drops.

Not everyone offers an opt-out option. Gator recently began testing Search Scout, which leaves pop-under paid listings from Overture when people search on competitive search engines, such as Google and Yahoo Overture advertisers cannot opt out of the service.

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