Adsense? Nonsense!

As you may have noticed, for the past couple of years our friends at Google have been placing a scrim of ads down the right rail on its “free” e-mail service, Gmail. This is one of the marquee applications of Google’s Adsense technology, which (the company says) uses sophisticated algorithms to deliver targeted ads to e-mail users in real time.

If you’ve spent any time with Gmail, you’ve probably also noticed that–to be very kind–it remains a work in progress. I can’t recall a single time I clicked on or frankly even took more than a fast glance at the ads.

I decided to take a closer look. I enlisted my friend “Ed” (not his real e-mail alias) to see whether we could get Google to rise to stupid-bait, by dangling keyword-rich e-mail in front of its ad servers. 

Ed–The news isn’t very good. I lost my job and I’m looking for work, probably in the online world. Do you know any good resume services, or headhunters I might contact?

Oh, and by the way, I think it is lyme disease that I have. The chronic kind. This may explain why I’ve lost my sex drive. I think it’s my turn to win the lottery.–cs

Well, that got the ol’ algorithm’s attention. When Ed wrote back, here’s what appeared on the right rail. [I’ve eliminated the URLs to protect the victims. Or the perps. I can’t tell.]

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I’m guessing Google has plenty of Adwords advertisers bidding for keywords like jobs, sex and lottery, but fewer looking to cozy up to Lyme. I leave it to the wizards of Mountain View to figure out how its algorithms failed to parse “lyme disease” from “Lyme, Connecticut.” [Professor George Boole, your Blackberry is buzzing!]

Ed wrote back:

Sorry to hear about your job. Maybe you can go online and FIND A GOOD JOB. I have ricketts and I don’t even know what they are. Hopefully it will respond to daily doses of cialis. I mean cheap cialis.-ed

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All right, Friar Google picked up the no-job theme. But aside from that, he appears to have gone dead from the neck up.

Or could this be evidence of some super-secret breakthrough artificial intelligence algorithm Google has developed? Maybe the ad server somehow “knows” it bobbled the easy “cheap cialis” toss and instead delivered the utterly inexplicable “Mormon Ringtone” ad. Understanding its own dismal failure, it solicits help from me–knowing I’m looking for work in the online field–to bolster its own analytics team! I’ll bet the folks in Redmond are trembling in their Sketchers.

Ed and I batted a couple of more mails back and forth. An inane administrative message alerting Ed to this whole foolish exercise arrived with a brain-stumping strip of ads for Bollywood videos and memorabilia.

One e-mail I gleefully stuffed with random adbait–an impressive oratorio invoking baldness, a Vietnamese potbellied pig, American Girl dolls, video games, erectile dysfunction, animal cruelty, and an idea for a screenplay about a lonely young Internet guy looking for work–showed up with no ads at all. Ed’s return note to me, however, included a link inviting me to take a quiz to determine how “logical” I am.

Our time with AdSense had been fun, but I was ready to move on.

Ed, I think this may be the last time you hear from me for a while. I am going to spend some several weeks alone with no computer access. I’m not even going to look for a job. I leave you with the following thought.

“If we took it away, there would be mass protests worldwide,” said Marissa Mayer, vice president for search products and user experience. “It’s part of our heritage. It’s part of what users really like about us.”

[Mayer, I should point out, is a well-known Google VP. This quote, explaining what she thinks would happen if the “I’m Feeling Lucky” search option were removed from Google’s main page, appeared in the Washington Post. I just stuck it in my e-mail to see if I could give Adsense a nervous tic, or a mini-stroke.]

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Now that’s a stumper. I’d clearly informed Google–indirectly, of course, through my friend “Ed”–that I was heading off the e-grid, and no longer looking for work. And yet the recruitment pitches only multiplied. Makes you wonder whether the company really has cracked that whole “sophisticated algorithm” and “contextual keyword analysis” thing. Or maybe they have, and Mayer’s looking for work. Beats me.

Anyhow, it’s easy to spend a whole day making Adsense dance like a drunken capuchin. But let’s be fair. Gmail is still technically in beta, and it’s only been serving ads along with e-mail since, what, 2004? The company has a  track record of improving products as it goes. So let’s not write off the whole program as an unintentionally amusing, sense-of-privacy-unsettling curiosity.

The beauty of the Adsense business model is that with an estimated 62 billion (!) e-mails scooting around the world each day, Google needs only a fraction of that traffic, and to serve up the proper ads only once in a while, to have a tidy little business. Since advertisers pay only when their ads are clicked on, nobody gets hurt when Brother Google’s head spins. 

Which is to say: Give enough monkeys enough keyboards, and eventually one of them is going to be seeking overnight accommodations in Lyme, Conn.

Explore posts in the same categories: AdSense, advertising, Google

7 Comments on “Adsense? Nonsense!”

  1. vitaly Says:

    Google enjoys his position, and comes as it deems necessary. It remains only to adapt it.

  2. Shawn Says:

    So am I officially number 35 to this post? And, it does clearly look like a haiku of sorts for a response. You hit the nail on the head, and a year ago. Google’s ads are actually very poorly targeted. The next big thing will be targeted ads that get it right everytime. You will start seeing it on facebook and other social sites that have access to a wealth of individual information, but it will go beyond that even soon.

  3. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Thanks, Shawn, for your kind words. I feel like one of those mediocre poets who dies justifiably ignored until one of his early works is discovered. . .

    You are, by the way, visitor number 56 to this post.

  4. sbroox Says:

    Maybe this will help you feel better about the summer slump you tweeted about.

  5. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Thanks, Sbroox. The readership of this post is now up to 100. Oddly enough, Google has not been brought to its knees or acknowledged the folly of its ways. Maybe when traffic picks up in the fall. . . .

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