Google Targets Search Ads on Prior Queries, À la Behavioral

Many have expected the behavioral targeting shoe would eventually drop at Google, and now it has. Technically, anyway, though a new behavior-based ad system enhancement from the company’s ad quality group doesn’t resemble the segmentation-based approach to behavioral targeting most marketers are familiar with.

A few weeks ago, Google began delivering ads based not only on the current search, but also on the searches immediately preceding it, and sometimes a combination of more than one recent query, according to Nick Fox, Google’s group business product manager for ads quality. Fox told ClickZ this week that the feature, which has no official name, aims to capture a more robust understanding of user intent and thereby deliver a better ad.

“The current query the user is issuing is pretty useful, but in some cases it misses the context of what the user is doing,” said Fox. By studying the larger context of queries relating to a consumer’s “overall task,” he said, Google can boost relevance.

A search ClickZ conducted this afternoon for “California vacation” following a search for “tennis lessons” turned up a sponsored listing for “Tennis Vacation Resorts,” merging the two queries, placed in the second ad position on the Google’s results page. While that particular ad can’t be proven to be one of Google’s new behaviorally-targeted listings, it appears to be based on the same principle Fox described.

Fox doesn’t like the term “behavioral targeting,” partly because it’s a loaded phrase in marketing and privacy circles. Additionally, he said, Google’s intent-based approach doesn’t employ the audience segmentation favored by Tacoda, Revenue Science and other behavioral targeting tech firms, not to mention BT-friendly media sites like Yahoo, that serve ads based on recent Web pages seen.

“We’re not doing things like trying to profile the user to find out if the user is a man or a woman or a 45-year-old or a 25-year-old,” he said. “In the context of search it doesn’t seem that powerful, and we haven’t seen any evidence that it will be that powerful.”

Google introduced the feature without fanfare, and most if not all marketers whose ads are affected by it have no idea the targeting is taking place. That’s true to form for Google and potentially irritating to advertisers, according to Anna Papadopoulos, interactive media director for Euro RSCG 4D. Papadopoulos said her agency currently has several big buys extant with Google, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our campaigns, especially automotive, were part of this new serving strategy.”

“I think they’re doing a smart thing, and I’m pleasantly surprised,” she said. But she added, “They’re not very forthcoming with innovation as it relates to the search engine. A small business is one thing, when people are doing this independently, but when you’re working with agencies and big advertisers, I think you owe it to them to [convey] any changes in algorithm that would affect your advertising.”

Papadopoulos also finds it remarkable that Google has changed its tune with regard to behavior-based ad serving.

“I think it’s a total turning point for them,” she said. “Now I’m curious how they’re going to handle this for AdSense. They were pretty steadfast about not wanting to play in the behavioral targeting space.”

Google didn’t immediately respond to questions about where else on the Google network the company might consider delivering ads based on consumers’ prior search or surfing behavior. But it’s something the company opened the door to some time ago, according to Dave Morgan, founder and chairman of Tacoda.

“As an observer in the market, certainly Google’s move into behavioral targeting appears to have been happening incrementally over the past couple years,” he said. “Certainly they’ve modified their privacy policy over time to permit it.”

Morgan, whose behavioral targeting firm agreed to be sold to AOL last week for an estimated $275 million, said Google’s move feels like an important recognition of something he’s long believed.

“If the largest player in performance targeted advertising now recognizes they have to use behavioral to grow the business, it’s heartening to someone who’s worked in behavioral for quite some time,” he said.

Google’s new ad quality feature uses referrer information rather than cookies to track user queries at this time, Google’s Fox said. In most cases the ads will only appear to users for searches performed back-to-back or “within seconds or minutes of each other.” He added the company is looking at other possible tracking and targeting methods to capture “full intent,” including, perhaps, cookies.

During the first weeks of testing the behavior-based feature, Fox added, “The data all show users are getting a better experience.”

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