Search Engine Contextual Ads Gain Momentum

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2003 Conference, August 18-21, San Jose, California.

A longer version of this article that goes into detail about advertiser concerns with contextual ads, including their effectiveness, return on investment and other issues, is available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member

A relatively new form of search engine advertising has nothing to do with search engine results. Instead, “contextual ads” are displayed on other sites’ Web pages, based on the content of pages people are viewing.

For example, if you are visiting a Web page featuring digital camera reviews, the ads displayed on that particular Web page are related to digital cameras. Contextual ads have been both popular and profitable for the web site owners that display them. However, some advertisers are disgruntled with the programs, claiming that contextual ads are less effective than those displayed with search engine results.

Benefits of Contextual Ads

Susan Wojcicki, one of the creators of the AdSense program at Google, spoke about the benefits of displaying targeted ads.

“Selling inventory, especially very specific inventory, is hard for a lot of publishers,” she said. “Given that Google has over 100,000 advertisers, we have the ability to find and match the right ad with the right page. So, one of the opportunities we saw was that there area lot of pages out there that are serving untargeted ads.”

The idea with contextual ads, she said, is that as the user is looking at that page, the ads showing them are going to be very targeted. From the advertiser’s standpoint, the ads are very relevant to what the user is looking for.

“A lot of publishers have been good at selling in the top level pages and categories, but what they haven’t been able to do is sell deeper into the very specific parts or pages of a site,” continued Wojcicki. “Especially small sites, they haven’t had the sales force to get the very specific advertisers that you need to match the content on each particular area of your site (especially deep pages). When there is unsold ad inventory, AdSense can fill the right ad on the right page at the right time.”

“We think there are two components that make up quality leads,” stated Paul Volen, Vice President of Partner Development & Strategy at Overture. “One is quality placements, and the other is relevant listings.”

“On the placement side… you need two things: quality partners, and quality implementations on those partner sites,” he further explained. “We’ve customized the implementation for the partner, talked and worked with their product managers, and brought our own editorial staff to bear on this issue. The editors on our side will talk to their program managers to best understand where are the most appropriate listings for which pages.”

Contextual Advertising Programs

Overture’s contextual ad program is called Content Match. These ads currently appear on MSN Search,, MyFamily Network, and

“We consider placement to be one of the key factors in drawing quality leads to advertisers,” said Volen. “That’s not to say that we’re not going to display our listings in banners. When it’s appropriate we will display our listings in creatives, but we have to go beyond placement and make sure our ads are relevant to the page content.”

Overture takes a hybrid approach to solving the relevancy issue, using both an algorithmic engine and human editors.

For example, with dynamic news stories, content is continually being generated that cannot be hand-mapped. In this instance, Overture uses an algorithmic search engine. The engine reviews the content and concepts for that page and returns the appropriate ads for that page.

Other content involves human editors.

“In the case of a special section, like MSN Family, we have our editors look at the page, understand the page, and determine the relevancy with our ads to maximize yields,” Volen explained. “By hand-selecting those, we can address some issues that a search engine just can’t deal with as effectively at this time.”

“We know that for Content Match to be successful, it has to work for our advertisers. To that end, we’re carefully monitoring advertiser feedback and conversion rates along with integrating daily click caps and other mechanisms to ensure advertiser satisfaction now, and into the future,” concluded Volen.

Google’s AdSense program was officially launched in March 2003. All ads are reviewed to ensure they meet certain performance specifications. There are a number of different variables that Google looks at.

“We can serve targeted ads on any page on the Web and we have a number of ways to do it,” said Wojcicki.” Basically, we’re using something similar to what we do with search. We are given a keyword, and we try to figure out what is the right page. We use the link structure of the Web as one example to determine what the page is actually about. We look at the keywords on that page and on other pages, how frequently they appear. We try to mimic what a person would see if they looked at the page. What’s in the title could be different from the bottom of the page, so the title would have more important. We also look at anchor text.”

The program can make distinctions with words and their meanings (e.g. “mouse” – animal or computer pointing device; “java” – computer language or coffee) “That is something that has been hard in the past for other ad servers to determine,” said Wojcicki.

The goal of the online version was to offer a very fast way for publishers to sign up. The turnaround time is usually less than 24 hours for an ad to be approved and up and running. “Our goal is to make this as easy as possible to try out with only a small investment in time,” said Wojcicki.

Related Articles

Overture’s Content Match Takes on Google’s AdSense

Google AdSense Expands Contextual Ad Placement

Google Buys Sprinks, Plans IPO

Overture Contextual Ads Information

Google Content-Targeted Advertising

Google AdSense Main Page

Google AdSense FAQ

Shari Thurow is the Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc. and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility. She has been designing and promoting web sites since 1995 for businesses in a wide range of fields.

A longer version of this article that goes into detail about advertiser concerns with contextual ads, including their effectiveness, return on investment and other issues, is available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member

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