May 15th, 2011

When It Comes to Inbox Advertising, Less Is Still More

The New York Times

WHEN Google introduced Gmail seven years ago, it didn’t copy Yahoo Mail or Microsoft’s Hotmail. Gmail was built for distraction-free speed. The ads were text-only, and so unobtrusive that you could forget they were even there.

In this respect, Gmail has been a retro service, resembling the text-only computing of ancient times, before mice and touch pads.

Google realized from the start that irrelevant ads would annoy its users. So it developed software that analyzed the words in an incoming message and then selected the seemingly most salient ads among those in its inventory.

Now, “better ads” are coming to Google, the company recently announced. But as has always been the case, ads in Gmail will remain “fully automated — no humans read your messages,” the company says.

Seven years in, it’s amazing to me how crude the Gmail ad-matching system still is. This week, an e-mail from my daughter’s school about a coming Teacher Appreciation Week brought an ad inviting me to “Become a Teacher, Earn a Master’s.” A different e-mail, which made no mention of medical matters but had the phrase “no recurrence,” was accompanied by an ad for patients who had had a mastectomy.

Gmail presents a single text ad when you look at an inbox view and haven’t selected a particular message. A recent sampling of ads included one inviting me to invest in oil stocks; a message from Rand Paul seeking my signature on a petition; and a plea from BP seeking to tell me about its restoration work in the Gulf of Mexico.

I have no idea how I was matched to any of those ads. Alex Gawley, Google’s senior product manager overseeing Gmail, explained that in cases like these, “the advertiser may be using keywords that are very broad.” Which means that, despite Google’s intent, the ads can be matched to most any e-mail message, making the likelihood of the ad matching my particular interests very small.

Mr. Gawley said Gmail’s revamped ad-matching system, now in limited tests, analyzes context as well as the content of an individual message. It looks at what he calls “signals in your inbox,” like whether you open messages with particular keywords and don’t open those with other keywords.

Given that advertisers pay Google only if a user takes the trouble to click on the ad, it might seem that the company has every reason to display more, not fewer, ads on the right-hand side accompanying individual e-mails. But Mr. Gawley says that Google has greatly reduced the number of ads it displays — because it wants its users to develop confidence that the ads they see have been winnowed carefully, leaving only the most relevant.

Then Mr. Gawley revealed a surprise: Gmail will begin allowing advertisers to use images. For example, an e-mailed offer for a ski package showing a skier on the slopes could be accompanied by an ad on the right side of the screen, showing a competing offer, replete with another skier coming down another slope.

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