Help! A Web Ad Is Stalking Me

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Search Advertising Getting Social

Pretty much everybody knows about search-based ads. Google, Bing, and others place ads at the right of the search page that are related in some way to the thing you searched for. Google and Bing are now in an arms race to add new social elements to search and search advertising.

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Bing announced a historic tie-in with Facebook last year that has brought a social element to the task of searching for online content. Bing deepened the partnership with a bunch of new social search functionality in May. When you're signed in to Facebook and you search for something on Bing, you can see whether some of your Facebook friends have “liked” what you're searching for. This information is extremely valuable to marketers, and it’s the principal reason why Bing is gaining ground on Google in the search ad market.

Marketers have long known that word-of-mouth recommendations are extremely powerful influencers over people’s decisions to buy in the real world. Bing and Facebook are trying to bring that influence to bear on consumers when they search for a product or service online. Research has shown that consumer ratings (Facebook “likes”) and reviews are among the most powerful influencers of online buying. If you own or sell that product or service, the promise of focused "word of mouth" is a good reason to advertise on Bing.

Google and Bing currently allow some very basic demographic advertising where advertisers bid for the right to target specific ads to specific demographic groups. How are Google and Bing gathering enough information about their users to put them into demographic categories? A good guess would be that they are both scraping social graph information and associating it with search users. Bing, for example, may be leveraging Facebook user data to define its demographics.

URL Shorteners, Too

Even sites like Bitly are getting into the Web advertising game. Suppose that you want to post a link to an article or product on Twitter, and you go to Bitly to do it. Does Bitly simply forget about the URL that it just shortened for you for free? No. Though Bitly doesn't collect your demographic data, it keeps statistics on the URLs that it shortens for you. These stats can be sold to content creators, for example, who may tailor their content offerings in response to whatever seems to be hot on social networks at the moment. PCWorld might pump up its coverage of Windows 8 if it knew that Windows 8 article URLs were being shortened and shared by thousands of readers on a particular day.

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Then there’s (now in beta), which moves URL shortening to another level. users sign up and upload a picture of themselves. When they have a link--say a new Lady Gaga video--that they want to share, they create a little page (called a “toast page”) at about the video. The toast page contains a banner ad for Lady Gaga and a little message (a “toast”) from the user. When somebody clicks the shortened URL on Twitter or Facebook, they get sent first to the “toast” page for 5 seconds and then on to the video. says the toast page is not an advertisement, and that it isn’t being paid to display the banner.

Consumer as Marketer?

Some new advertising tech companies are even enlisting social-network users to shill for advertisers. A new company called (not yet launched) provides a platform where users of Facebook or Twitter can share links to products, services, or content; whenever a recipient clicks one of those links, the Virurl user gets paid. This mercenary arrangement might spoil one of the coolest things about social networking--the idea that you can easily get honest referrals from your like-minded friends about things you should see, read, hear, or eat. If I know that my friend is getting paid to refer things, I will regard his motives as suspect.

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EngageSimply CEO and founder Judy Shapiro. Image: Ad Age

And that, in a nutshell, is the whole problem with most “social advertising” that it is not opt-in. People like social networks because there’s a certain amount of trust among a group of friends, explains Judy Shapiro, CEO of a social commerce and marketing firm EngageSimply. The moment money is introduced into the equation without the user’s consent, things change. That’s one of the reasons that Facebook ads have not performed as well as many marketers had hoped; most people simply don’t want to mix social interaction with commerce. Shapiro’s company, engageSimply is creating a platform where users can opt-in to topic-based communities that also includes topic-based advertising.

Back Off

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Much of the advertising world seems dazzled by and obsessed with the new ad targeting technologies available to them. But they seem to miss the point that just because they can target ads with near pinpoint accuracy doesn’t mean they should.

In truth, much of the advertising world is still rooted in the old world of large media digital ad buys and has been slow to understand the new “social” web. “Marketers are not experienced in the new world of social interaction because they are still in the mindset of the old world of one-to-many advertising,” Shapiro says. “In the new world they are playing catch-up.”

The result has been costly for brands and advertisers, and it may get costlier if consumers respond with increasing ill will. The more proficient advertisers become at targeting online ads to our specific demographic and interests, the more creeped out we get with them.

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