This month, Google has come under fire for the use of “session-based ads.” It seems that Google comes under fire just about every month for something but this is one instance in which I am very sympathetic to those doing the proverbial shooting.
Session-based ads are ads that show up on the search engine results pages of Google that are based not only on the last search entered but also on other searches performed recently, in the same search “session.” According to Google, “The system considers previous searches in order to better understand the intent of the user’s current search. The added information helps the system deliver more relevant ads.” That’s the official stance from Google and, on the surface, it appears to make sense.
If you are to believe those who are up in arms, though, Google has implemented session-based ads in an effort to make more money. If the ads shown draw from a pool of advertisers not only bidding on the last search executed but also on searches, prior to the last, then that pool must inherently grow to accommodate those additional advertisers. More advertisers translates into more competition for ad real estate and would lead to Google making more money per set of ads delivered.
Think about it this way, if you search for “underwater cameras,” then “scuba diving vacations” and then “scuba diving lessons,” you would probably expect to see ads on the final search engine results page only for institutions that give lessons for for scuba diving. That’s a pretty small group. However, with session-based ads and broad matched keywords, you might trigger ads for almost anything related to the world of scuba diving, including scuba ready cameras or hotels near reefs, as long as they pertain to the “theme of the session,” to use Google’s parlance.
Of course, you might only see ads for scuba instructors. The implementation is hardly uniform.
In the video above, I’ve tried to quickly illustrate how a session-based ad can appear that may or may not be the top choice for an advertiser. I could have done a better job locating a “bad” ad rather than a “less-than-ideal” ad, however, I don’t mean to impugn Google for their strategy. In many ways, the idea of using session-based ads is a good one and–much like the expansion of broad match–could act to help advertisers with only a cursory understanding of how to manage an AdWords campaign drive more targeted traffic to their site. Of course, advertisers that do know how to manage an AdWords campaign can use search query reports, negative keywords, modified broad match and other tactics to lower the risk of wasting money on poor matches for session-based ads.
AdWords is only a delivery system and, despite its flaws, it’s still the best one out there for ads. It’s user-friendly, unbelievably trackable and instantly alterable. The responsibility of properly managing a campaign still rests on the advertiser. It should be expected that Google would tweak its ad delivery from time to time. Some tweaks are bound to be more universally beneficial than others; some, like session-based ads, will be controversial. With so little data on session-based ads, I’m not ready to condemn them.
That said, if Google truly wanted to act in the best interest of the advertiser, they should allow for them to opt out of session-based ads or, even better, allow them to opt in in the first place. For the longest time, Google opted users in to their content/display network without informing them, defaulted to broad match keywords without explaining how broad “broad” really means and kept data such as search queries and placements hidden. Google has moved in the direction of more transparency in all of these instances, however, Google still doesn’t willingly reveal the whole truth right away. If they truly believe in session-based ads, what harm would it do to insert a checkbox allowing users to opt in?
The only definitive harm it would do would be to Google’s short-term bottom line. Still, it’s difficult to say whether that justifies the uproar that Google encounters with every misstep. The good news for Google is that people wouldn’t care so much if AdWords weren’t so vital to their marketing efforts,which it clearly is, session-based ads or not.