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The Useful Ads Project

The Useful Ads Project



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Published by sjbrinker3411
The Useful Ads Project: Independently Intelligent Advertising.
The Useful Ads Project: Independently Intelligent Advertising.

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Published by: sjbrinker3411 on Jan 31, 2010
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The Useful Ads Project: Independently Intelligent Ads
Scott Brinker
Harvard UniversityCambridge, MAsbrinker@fas.harvard.edu
In this paper we examine ways to make Internet advertisingmore useful to users. For the scope of this paper, we focusexclusively on sponsored search ads served up when usersconduct queries on Google. Via a Firefox extension, weenable users to access richer—and more independent— information associated with an advertiser in the context of that particular keyword search.
Author Keywords
Internet advertising, sponsored search.
ACM Classification Keywords
H5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI):Miscellaneous.
The Internet has a love/hate relationship with advertising.On one hand, advertising supports a tremendous number of free services on the web—Google’s search engine, Gmail,Google Maps, Facebook, and most online publishers.Because advertisers pay for the opportunity to present their messages to users of these services, users don’t have todirectly pay anything. It’s very similar to the model thatallowed broadcast radio and television to prosper.However, the validity of this model is predicated on theassumption that such advertising will prove beneficial to theadvertisers, that their messages will reach a reasonable percentage of their target audience, and that such touch points will positively contribute to the likelihood that a user will eventually do business with the advertiser—or at leastspread the brand to their friends and colleagues when theopportunity to influence a buying decision arises.Unfortunately, this implied assumption of reciprocity fromusers breaks down when you survey their sentiments of advertising. It is not uncommon to hear users complainabout their dislike for advertising and their intentions toignore it. Sometimes the opinions people have of onlineadvertising border on outright contempt. Certain advertisingformats in particular, such as gaudy, flashing banner adsthat take over a web page or pop-up windows that clutter auser’s desktop, have infuriated people to the point thatAdBlock Plus, a Firefox extension that automatically blocksall ads from a user’s browsing experience, has beendownloaded over 61 million times [1].To a certain degree, sponsored search advertising—theshort text ads that appear at the top and to the right on asearch engine results page (SERP) on sites such as GoogleSearch, Bing, and Yahoo!—should fare better. The ads arevisually less intrusive and should have a higher degree of relevance for users. After all, the users are looking for something in particular (hence why they’re doing a search),and advertisers are explicitly bidding on those keywordsearch terms to signal that they have something of value inthat area. Nonetheless, the bad sentiments that people have for onlineadvertising in general seem to spill over into sponsoredsearch as well. In the preliminary survey we conducted as part of this project, 68.2% of the participants who identifiedthemselves as non-marketers (i.e., no professional biastoward advertising) claimed that they never or rarely payattention to the ads when doing a search. Only a mere 4.5%of non-marketers reported looking at the ads frequently,more than 25% of the time.This state of affairs seems unfortunate and inefficient for everyone involved. Advertisers are not realizing the full potential return on their investment, as a significant percentage of users are shutting them out
a priori
. Users arenot connecting with advertisers who may very well havevaluable content to help them with the answers to their search. It’s lose-lose situation.In the big picture, if more and more users were to rejectadvertising, eventually advertisers would learn to spendtheir money elsewhere—putting the entire economic engineof the web’s free services at risk of market failure. It’s onlya little bit of hyperbole to suggest that the future of the webas we know it may depend on finding a solution to this problem. It’s with that motivation in mind that we haveundertaken this project: how to make advertising more
to users.
Working draft, December 11, 2009Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for  personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies arenot made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise,or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.Copyright © 2009 by Scott Brinker. All rights reserved.
 2For the scope of this paper, we focus solely on sponsoredsearch ads in Google. Through the use of a Firefoxextension, we explore layering additional information andoptions on the ads that users receive. Our intention, first andforemost, is to help make those ads more useful to users— with a secondary objective that if ads are more useful tousers, and more successful at engaging them, thenadvertisers will benefit. However, since more informationmay not necessarily be beneficial to every advertiser inevery situation, we place the needs of the
above theneeds of the
in our approach.The organization of this paper will be a description of related work, analysis of our survey of user sentiments for sponsored search advertising, the description of our Firefoxextension design to address the issues arising from thatsurvey, and the results from a think-aloud study of  participants using this enhanced search advertisingextension. We conclude with several ideas of next steps to build on this work.
There are a number of papers that have explored the hugeeconomic force that is sponsored search advertising, mostnotably Internet Advertising and the Generalized SecondPrice Auction: Selling Billions of Dollars Worth of Keywords by Edelman, Ostrovsky, and Schwarz [7].Gomes, Immorlica, and Markakis [8] argued that usersconsider sponsored search ads using an “ordered search”heuristic in Externalities in Keyword Auctions: AnEmpirical and Theoretical Assessment. However, there has been little academic research to date on when and howusers decide to consider sponsored search ads at all, or howthose ads might be better from the user’s perspective.With banner advertising, there has been some interestingresearch in this area. Drèze and Hussherr noted users avoidlooking at these ads in Internet Advertising: Is AnybodyWatching? (2003)—although they claim there is still brandvalue with reach users at a pre-attentive level [6]. Jakob Nielsen, a well-regarded web usability expert, hasconducted eye-tracking studies to confirm this “banner  blindness” [12]. However, Nielsen notes that the moreadvertisements look like a native part of the site, the moreattention that receive. This bodes well for search ads inGoogle, and indeed, eye-tracking studies by searchmarketing firm Enquiro show that sponsored search ads doget some attention—more than the banner ads in Nielsen’sstudies [11]. Danaher and Mullarkey (2003) found that user in a goal-directed mode, such as search, are less likely torecall banner ads [5].Broder, et al., have described the benefits of “broad match”insertion of sponsored search ads, considering ads related tothe user’s specific query, as a way to exposing users to potentially more useful information from advertisers [3].Clarke, et al., have shown that the features exposed insearch result summaries (“captions”) have an impact on theclickthrough rate of users [4]. Although their research wason organic search results, not sponsored ads, their work suggests that more expressive information about the searchads may have a positive impact on the experience of usersand their corresponding clickthrough rates.An AdweekMedia/The Harris Poll of 2,521 U.S. adults inJune 2009 to find out which ads are most helpful in making purchase decisions [2]. While 37% of the respondents saidthat television ads were the most helpful, while only 17%said that about Internet search engine ads. (Only 1% of therespondents said that about Internet banner ads.)Finally, Googlepedia, an extension for Firefox developed by James Hall, inserts relevant Wikipedia articles into thesearch results pages on Google [10]. This mechanism of dynamically altering pages on Google to deliver additionalinformation to users is similar to what our Firefox extensiondoes. Because Googlepedia is an open source project, with permission granted by the author to use, modify andredistribute his code, we used it as the starting point for our extension.
As the first step of this project, we conducted a survey of web users to learn more about their sentiments and perceptions of sponsored search advertising today. Our survey, performed on the web via SurveyMonkey.com, had92 participants.Because requests for participation were posted on theauthor’s blog and Twitter account, which has an audienceof subscribers that include many marketers, the surveyasked respondents to identify if they worked in marketing.52.2% (48) of the participants identified themselves assuch, and since we expected their answers to be biased bytheir professional experience, we segmented their responsesin our analysis below. In the graphs presented, the orange bars associated with “Yes” in the legend representmarketers; the blue bars for “No” represent non-marketers.The first question asked respondents how often they payattention to the sponsored ads when they do a search onGoogle, Yahoo!, or Bing.
 368.2% of non-marketers responded that they rarely or never look at the ads; only 4.5% of them said that they look at theads frequently, at least 1-in-4 times when they do searchqueries. Although asking people this question instead of observing their actual behavior may not accurately reflectexactly how much they pay attention to search ads in practice, these answers do reveal their attitude towardsthese ads: generally they seek to avoid them.Interestingly, marketers had a very different perspective onthis question: 33.3% of them claimed to frequently payattention to the ads. This may be due to their professionalresponsibilities—examining their own ads and those of their competitors, as well as learning from the best practicesof advertisers in other markets. However, it also raises the possibility that marketers may believe that search ads aremore useful to their audience than is actually the case.Since the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing it,marketers should take careful note of this dichotomy.To try to understand when people intentionally choose to pay more attention to search ads—those rare times whenthey do—the next question asked under what circumstancesthey were more inclined to do so. 63.6% of non-marketers(our primary group of interest) claimed that they pay moreattention when looking to buy something specific, whatmarketers would typically consider to be late in the buyingcycle. However, the earlier you go back in the process, theless likely those respondents were to consider advertising intheir search. 47.7% pay attention when researching acategory of products or services; 22.7% when learningabout a new idea or concept; and only 18.2% when trying tofind answers to a specific problem.These responses seem to reveal an opportunity: if ads couldhelp people in earlier stages of a search—in their quest for answers, solutions, or new knowledge—that would makeads more useful and relevant in a larger percentage of search queries. We believe that this should be possible because many advertisers are also experts in their domain,and they have often invested significant effort in creatingcontent that can help prospects and customers in learningabout the pertinent subject matter. Advertisers are ofteneager to provide this information with no strings attached,as it helps nurture new potential customers and establishes afavorable brand relationship between the advertiser and the prospect. From the user’s perspective though, it can still bea source of useful, professional information.However, the circumstances for an earlier-stage connection between advertisers and users are currently not ideal. Weasked respondents what the reasons are when they avoid theads for a particular search. For non-marketers, they mostfrequently claimed that they don’t want to buy anything(54.5%), don’t think advertisers will have anything usefulfor them (50.0%), don’t find the information in the ads to be helpful (50.0%), or don’t trust the advertisers (40.9%).To address these concerns, especially when users aren’t in a buying mode, there would need to be a way for users toquickly see that an advertiser does have useful and relevantknowledge and receive a signal of their trustworthiness.The current format for sponsored search ads today is notsufficient to communicate that information.Finally, we asked respondents to pick the words thatdescribe how they
about search ads, to tap into their sentiments around ads and advertisers in this medium. (Thefirst step in solving a problem, after all, is recognizing it.)

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