10 January 2006

The upside of online advertising

The advent of user-targeted advertising is a curious phenomenon, one that raises some troubling privacy issues. But there may be a positive, unintended, almost ironic side-effect of this trend, thanks to the shortcomings of the targeting software. Allow me to explain.

Along the top and down the sides of many a commercial website, private blog and even webmail pages can be found small advertisements supplied by Google Adsense, Blogads and their competitors. The ads are generated by software that tries to match the ads to the subject matter of the web page on which they appear.

It's a nice idea, especially for popular bloggers who are trying to get paid for their derivative ramblings, but it also opens the doors for reader tracking and the consequent privacy concerns raised thereby, all of which does give me pause. Just a little though, and that's a subject for someone else to tackle.

Back to my point. In theory, the ideal software would supply only those ads that promote products and services compatible with the needs, desires, politics and worldview of the reader. But of course, the algorithms being used by the ad services are hopelessly flawed. At one time, one of my favorite bloggers, Carl Zimmer (The Loom), was forced to apologize because ads promoting creationist literature were appearing on his blog, a major theme of which is rationalism, the scientific method and just about everything that creationism isn't.

Just today, I was reading a Live Science story about the auto industry's worst polluters, and what did I see across the top? An ad for Ford Trucks. They're built tough, did you know? The software, it would appear, can't tell the difference between complimentary and denigrating commentary.

My point is that this is a good thing. In an era in which fewer and fewer people dare to read anything that might challenge their preconceived biases, when the Internet allows you to wrap yourselve in a coccoon of like-minded blow-hards, the appearance of accidental counter-propaganda can only be a welcome development.

You don't see any ads on the Island of Doubt. But that's not because I fear corrupting the page with commercial pleas. As soon as traffic is sufficiently high to justify such corruption, I'll be on board. And I'm willing to bet a few day's income from those hypothetical future ads that many of them will be hyping items that are getting the skeptical treatment in this space.

And why not?


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