I have this web site RoundedCornr.com that I’ve been using for the last 10 months to study web advertising and monetization. I was surprised to find that begging users for money is as effective as AdSense. Partly it’s because users were more willing to send money than I had expected. Partly it’s also due to the fact that AdSense hasn’t worked well for my site.
To give a little background, RoundedCornr.com is a site for amateur web designers who want to put rounded corners in their web page design. The AdSense ads I see now are
- Corner Protectors
- Nissan Lights on Sale
- Corner Board
- Help Elect Barack Obama (banner ad)
Of course, you may see different ads than I do. (And I’ll see different ones if I refresh.) The point is that they’re generally pretty irrelevant.
When I first put up RoundedCornr and saw the useless ads, my first reactions was to ping my friends working at AdSense to see if they would suggest anything. Well, I can safely say that having friends at Google doesn’t help you much. (And their “we’re not clueless, we’re just secretive” stance has never really worked on me…) I was told that AdSense is not optimized for “this kind of web site,” by which I assume they mean it works better for blogs and news sites. I was also told to change some of the wording to avoid triggering some of the bad ads. Well… it’s hard to avoid using the word “corner” in describing my site, and some ads just seem totally unrelated to anything I’ve said on my site anyways. I was also told to wait until the system learns from user click-throughs. Well… it’s been 10 months now…
For things like banner ads, it’s pretty easy to figure out why it’s so bad: there just isn’t enough inventory. Unfortunately, the content of these banner ads is also what I have the most issues with. I haven’t decided on which presidential candidate to support yet, so it’s a bit misleading to have a Barack Obama ad. At some other time, the banner ad was soliciting support for more border patrols. (Maybe it was triggered by my description of rounded corners with “border”.) I had tried to remove that banner ad since it doesn’t reflect my political belief, but AdSense didn’t like to give its users much control.
For text ads, where inventory is not a problem, what can AdSense do to be more targeted? Personalization and behavioral targeting have been suggested before, but I think a little natural language processing will help a lot more. And unlike search, NLP for contextual advertising can help without needing much change in user behavior. The technology needed is also more achievable and should be within the grasp of technologists including Powerset (see their first public demo here.) The idea is to increase the semantic understanding of page content so that advertising is more semantically relevant.
Specifically, there’re two technologies that I’m thinking of. One is to use a language parser that pick out the main subject words in the sentences of a page. Instead of indexing keywords based on simple statistics, one only indexes nouns and noun phrases. (Verbs, adverbs, etc. are quite secondary in terms of semantic understanding, especially for advertising.)
The other NLP technology to use is word sense disambiguation. A word like “jaguar” has many senses. One sense being a type of animal, another being a brand of cars. Automated techniques exist to figure out which sense is being used in a sentence. An AdSense advertiser should then be able to specify that she wants to advertise on pages that talk about “jaguar” in the car sense of the word, and not just any page that mentions “jaguar.”
Granted, it’s a lot easier said than done. Word usage on the web requires algorithms to be more dynamic and scalable than most academic research has looked at. However, “semantic contextual advertising” is still simpler than “semantic search.” If I have the Powerset technologies, I’d seriously look at contextual advertising as another business model to go after.