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AlmondNet Debuts "Post-Search" Search Behavioral Ad Network

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AlmondNet is unveiling a new program today to deliver advertising across the web targeted to the topics someone has searched on recently, including queries done on major search engines such as Google and Yahoo.

The "Post-Search" service gathers data on what people search for through partnerships it has established with web sites and ISPs. It then shows web surfers targeted ads if they visit sites taking part in its Post-Search advertising network.

ISPs, in particular, are how the company will know what people may be searching on at places like Google, where it doesn't have a data gathering partnership. The ISP sees all the traffic going between its customers and search engines, making that data trackable.

To do so, AlmondNet will use cookies to build search profiles of those using the ISPs it has partnered with or those who visit web sites taking part in the network. While the company won't know the actual names or identities of individuals, it will know that someone using a particular web browser did certain types of searches and be able to deliver ads based on this.

For example, imagine someone who searched on the word "cars" at Google, visiting it through an ISP that's partnered with AlmondNet. Now that person goes to a web site that carries AlmondNet's Post-Search ads. AlmondNet, by reviewing past search behavior, might serve up an ad that seems relevant to cars.

Searchtextual Ads: Not Contextual, More Behavioral

How is this different from contextual ads? With contextual ads, the ad is served up based on the context of the page someone is viewing. With these ads, the ad is served up based on the context of the searches they've conducted. I'll call it searchtextual for now, for want of a better word.

Certainly the ads are behaviorally targeted, another form of advertising that's developed rapidly over the past year. In behavioral targeting (and also see this for some players), ads are served up based on the types of sites you've visited over a period of time. Been to a lot of sports sites? Then sports ads might follow you around, even if you're on a non-sports site. But with post-search or searchtextual ads, the behavior is not sites you've visited but searches you've done.

Searchers: Privacy Issues & Opting Out

Searchers have already been targeted based on their search behavior at search engines themselves, in the form of keyword-targeted ads. And there have already been search privacy issues raised about search query logs in general.

This goes beyond that. No major search engine -- or anyone I know of -- has tried to profile searchers with targeted ads outside of search engines in this way. Yahoo did have an abortive Impulse Mail idea to do so, sending ads via email related to past queries, but that never took off. It's Yahoo Mail Behavioral Targeting program, in contrast, only targets banner ads to those on the Yahoo Mail site based on behavior on the Yahoo site -- and might not include search data (I'm checking on this).

Some people will dislike the idea that someone is building up a profile of their queries in this fashion. In response, AlmondNet says the solution is allowing people to opt-out. Ads like the one below will carry a "Powered By" link that leads to information on how the ad was targeted and how to remove the cookie.

That's a solution, though some more explicit language might be necessary. It may seem a burden for the ads to carry wording like "Ad Opt-Out Info" or "Your Privacy & This Ad," but given this is an entirely new form of advertising with new, sensitive issues, I'd say the burden is worthwhile.

For its part, AlmondNet notes:

"Third party cookies have been a common practice in the internet advertising market for years, used by Fortune 500 companies that own their own ad servers, ad networks, and companies that have behaviorally-targeted based systems. All of have been using third party cookies with the confidence that cookies are not only anonymous but consumers can easily block them from their browsers if they don't want them. AlmondNet is doing what no Fortune 500 advertiser and other parties using third party cookies have ever done by letting ad viewers opt-out directly from ads," said Roy Shkedi, founder and CEO of AlmondNet.

He also noted that if a particular publisher has specific privacy policies that would impact the ads, AlmondNet subjects itself to that.

For those who don't opt-out, another issue is that some queries you'd prefer no one know about could become visible through these ads. For instance, consider someone searching for hemorrhoid treatments. Conceivably, they could be targeted with an ad for these on web pages they view. And if someone's standing over their shoulder seeing the ad, then a private search has become much more public.

That assumes people could begin to tell that certain ads are searchtextually targeted, of course. Not everyone would know. For example, picture a boss seeing a searchtextually targeted ad for getting a new job on an employee's screen. That could have appeared there in various ways -- which provides some privacy protection.

"Today a huge proportion of ads on sites have nothing to do with the content of the page the person reads. I am reading a sports article and see ads for cars, beer, digital cameras, Viagra. Why not 'hemorrhoid treatment?' How could people tell it was search-based?," Shkedi said.

AlmondNet might expand the type of terms that would be excluded to go beyond porn, if issues cropped up, Shkedi said. The overall goal in doing that -- and any future exclusions -- is to make these ads fit in with existing types of advertisements.

"We see Post-Search as a service to the consumer, so if we think the ad may look weird, such as a porn ad on a regular content site, and therefore may cause inconvenience for the ad viewer, we will block these kind of ads."

It's also worth stressing that search profiles built up will be tied to anonymous cookies, not to personally-identifiable individuals. In other words, AlmondNet won't know the names of people doing searches -- only that a particular browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox) on a particular machine has done a query before. My past article on search privacy looks at the difference between being cookied and personally identified in more depth.

Advertisers: How To Get In?

Ready to get going as an advertiser? You may have already started. The ads AlmondNet is showing come from the existing paid search ad inventory of several second and third tier ad networks. Who are they? The partnerships will be announced in the near-future, once enough volume has been generated, AlmondNet said.

Personally, I think we'll learn about the partnerships prior to any announcements, given that advertisers will in short order be demanding to know if they are taking part in the new program. I also suspect that advertisers will themselves discover from tracking data if their ads are being placed in this new setting.

Demanding doesn't necessarily mean that advertisers will be upset. I expect many will want to try and likely love the new program. But they'll certainly want to know if they are taking part, which means the search partners will need to be forthcoming -- and quickly.

AlmondNet will be showing the ads in a banner-style placement at first, similar to the screenshot below:

050127-postsearch

AlmondNet will look across the entire inventory of paid ads available targeting a particular term, then pull two that seem most lucrative to the company and to the publisher to display within the banner (the mockup above shows only one, but that will change). By and large, that means those paying the most for an ad have a better chance of showing up.

Other factors also come into play. People search for a variety of things. If someone looked for "mortgage" two weeks ago, "car insurance" last week and "air fare" yesterday, which query gets priority?

Again, it will come down to what will produce the most revenue in a given setting. Things like the cost being paid to the publisher, the amount the advertiser is paying and expected clickthrough rate will be determined to make the choices.

Interesting, the "legs" a particular query may have as it relates to a purchase also has to be considered. Someone searching for "flowers" might purchase an item in a day or less. Someone searching for "new car" is likely to take much longer.

What about Google and Overture? Neither of the first tier players is participating in the program, but AlmondNet obviously hopes to change that.

"We hope to be in discussion with them in the weeks ahead," Shkedi said.

Publishers: How To Participate

Publishers are being sought by AlmondNet to host the ads now that the program has gone public. In the meantime, the company is also ramping up the purchase of ad space to carry ads, which is how it has tested the system in a smaller scale over the past six months.

Publisher can simply carry ads or provide search data as well. Many publishers have their own search features, so that data may be mixed in with the search profiles AlmondNet is generating, if deemed appropriate.

Unlike Google's popular AdSense program, there's no self-serve sign-up option, for the moment. Instead, publishers are being individually screened by AlmondNet.

Others To Jump In? Patent May Block

What's to keep other players from doing the same thing? After all, if proved acceptable on privacy grounds, one key competitor might be Google.

Google already cookies those searching on its site plus has an established network to deliver ads. Those ads currently are targeted contextually but could easily be done searchtextually.

Here's where the AlmondNet patent comes in. As part of the public unveiling of the new network, AlmondNet announced it has been granted a patent covering the targeting of ads based on recent searches.


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