Search Notes: The future of advertising could get really personal

Google mines data for more predictions, Yahoo and Bing evolve the search experience, and how search could change advertising.

This week, we imagine the future of advertising as we think about how much can really be tracked about us, including what we watch, our chats with our friends, and if we buy a lot of bacon.

Google expands its predictions

Search engines such as Google have an amazing amount of data, both in general (they do store the entire web, after all) and about what we search for (in aggregate, regionally, and categorized in all kinds of segments). In 2009, Google published a fascinating paper about predictions based on search data. The company has made use of this data in kinds of ways, such forecasting flu trends and predicting the impact of the Gulf oil spill on Florida tourism.

You can see the forecasted interest for all kinds of things using Google Insights for Search. Own a gardening web site? You might want to know that people are going to be looking for information on planting bulbs in April and October.

Web Search Interest: planting bulbs
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Those predictions are all based on search data, but search engines can do similar things with data from websites. Google is now predicting answers to searches using its Google Squared technology. Want to know the release date of a movie or video game? Just ask Google. A Google spokesperson said this feature is for any type of query as long as they have “enough high quality sites corroborating the answer.”


Movie guess

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Yahoo and Bing evolve the search experience

We hear a lot about Google’s experiments with changes in the user experience of search, but the other major search engines are changing as well.

When Yahoo replaced their search engine with Bing’s, they said they would continue to innovate the search experience. The most recent change they’ve made is with Search Direct, which is similar to Google’s instant search but includes rich media and advertising directly in a dropdown box.

Bing also continues to revise their user interface, the latest being tweets shown on the Bing news search results page (in a box called “public updates”). This is in addition to their “most recent” box.


Bing results

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Search engines and social networks continue to change the face of advertising

Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about the ads that appear next to Google search results, but search-based ads were an amazing transformation in advertising. For the first time, advertisers could target consumers who were looking for exactly what those advertisers had to offer. At scale. Want to target an audience looking to buy black waterproof boots? A snowboard roof rack for a 2007 Mini Cooper? A sparkly pink mini skirt? No problem!

Several years ago, Google introduced ads in Gmail that were intended to be contextually relevant to the email you were reading. This attempt was a bit more hit or miss. Contextual advertising is always going to be a bit less relevant than search advertising. If I’m searching for “best hiking gear,” I’m likely looking to buy some. If I’m reading an article in the New York Times about hiking trails in Vermont, I might just be filling time while I wait in line to renew my driver’s license. And matching advertising to email is even harder. I might open an email about hiking and wonder how I got on an outdoor mailing list.

For Gmail ads, Google is now looking to use additional signals about how you interact with your mail beyond just the content of the message. They noted that when working on the Priority Inbox feature, they found that signals that determined what mail was important could also potentially be used to figure out what types of ads you might be most interested in.

For example, if you’ve recently received a lot of messages about photography or cameras, a deal from a local camera store might be interesting. On the other hand if you’ve reported these messages as spam, you probably don’t want to see that deal.

Facebook is also looking to show us ads based on conversations we’re having online. This type of advertising has been available in a more general way on Facebook for some time, but this newest test shows ads based on posts in real time. AdAge’s description of it sounds like it hits upon the core reason search ads are so effective:

The moment between a potential customer expressing a desire and deciding on how to fulfill that desire is an advertiser sweet spot, and the real-time ad model puts advertisers in front of a user at that very delicate, decisive moment.

Simply showing better ads in email and next to conversations in social networks is one thing, but the more interesting idea is how this idea can be used more broadly. Advertising has always provided the profit for most media (television, newspapers, websites) and innovation as we saw with the original search ads is critical in thinking through the future of journalism.

A breakthrough that makes advertising in online versions of videos more successful than commercials on television could be key in the transition of television to online viewing. Americans engaged in 5 billion online video viewing sessions in February 2011. We watched 3.8 billion ads, but if you are like me and watch a lot of Hulu (and many of you are, as Hulu served more video ads than anyone else), you might wonder if all of those ad views were of the same PSA.

Part of why mainstream advertisers haven’t taken the leap from traditional television commercials to video ads is that TV commercials are tried and true. Why transition away from that? A good motivator would be an entirely new ad platform that takes real advantage of the online medium. (In the future, perhaps awebcam will track our facial expressions and use that data to stop showing us that annoying commercial!)

Ad platforms have been evolving use of behavioral targeting for a while, but it’s still early days. As for the changes in Gmail ads, it will be interesting to see if the types of email we get one day is part of the personalization algorithm for our search (and search ad) results and if what kinds of email lists we subscribe to and what types of things we search for impact the video ads we see on YouTube.

Add to that the predictive elements of search and that organizations such as Rapleaf can tie our email addresses to what we buy at the grocery store (Googlers drink a lot of Mountain Dew and snack on Dorritos … and bacon) and it’s pretty clear that radical shifts in personalized advertising are likely not too far away.

Google still the top place to work

One in four job applicants wants to work at Google. That’s nearly twice the number who want to work at Apple. The top write-in company (a list of 150 was offered in the study) was Facebook, followed by the Department of Homeland Security. No, I don’t know why either.

Google was also named the top brand of 2011. So,despite their legal woes, consumers and potential employees are still fans.

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  • http://www.admedia.com/ Francesca

    Sure, right now, ads are “contextual” and “relevant.” But with Facebook’s real time, conversation-based advertising, and Gmail’s ad system that learns from users’ email habits, there’s a solid possibility that ads will indeed become “personal.”

  • http://www.mohanarun.com Mohan Arun

    Great article Vanessa!

    @Francesca, Gmail’s ad system is already “personal” in my opinion (as personal as it could be) – if you sent or received emails with particular keywords (several months ago) and you re-visited them from archive recently, you can see those keywords triggerig the Adwords that display now… Impressive algorithms at work…

    Contrary to people who use Adblock etc. to block such ads I find it unethical that they block ads when they arent payig for use of email address. Ethical issues aside, several times I’ve come across useful websites that I wouldnt know of otherwise, from the ads that gmail displays…

  • http://bathroomdesignstoday.com Chris

    Yes, I’ve noticed recently that the ads served up in my gmail are becoming more relevant to previous emails too.

    Those that are using PPC in gmail must be seeing some increased CTR’s.