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Last week, the Account Development department welcomed its newest member, Amir Shoucri. Not surprisingly, Amir’s fresh perspective introduced a compelling blog topic…He wrote:

With all the immunity granted to the ignorant new guy, I’m going to throw this out there – I never clicked on an Internet ad before working here. I realize I’m walking a fine line, and at the risk of subverting what we do, I’ll be upfront about it. Like many people, I associated search-engine advertising with a variety of other negatives – spam, pop-ups, spyware, viruses etc. What’s more, I considered myself sophisticated enough to avoid all the traps set to ensnare the casual web browser. I use search engines; they don’t use me, kind of thing.

That having been said, I will admit to some misapprehensions. I don’t think I understood what a Google ad was until recently. The most I ever thought about it was the time I was discussing my private life in an e-mail and suddenly noticed I was being offered a variety of mental health services. Having now attained some background, I’m fairly impressed with the standards Google maintains for ad style, content, and security.

Web advertising is a pervasive new industry. I’ve worked in other pervasive industries, and all of them felt underappreciated. In television, it was always about the Nielsen ratings (Q: How come no one is watching our show? A: Because, Donnie Wahlberg is in it). In the education field, it was similar (Q: Why does no one value us? A: Because, knowledge makes people unhappy). Determining cause and effect was a game of constant guesswork.

With online ads, however, it seems the proof is in the pudding. If someone clicks on an ad, navigates to a site, and makes a purchase, that to me is literal, definitive evidence that advertising works. This is not the gray area of traditional advertising or sociological academia; the ability to assess is tangible and simple. People, despite what I would have guessed, are clearly clicking on ads.

I get the sense that I’m not alone in my initial misconception of this industry. What impression do most people really have?

After putting some thought to the issues raised by Amir, I wrote this response. Several points probably deserve a lot more attention (see future blog posts) but there’s plenty of food for thought:

Before I joined the Wpromote team, I could have counted on one hand the number of times I clicked on Google and Yahoo ads. Sure, I used the search engines extensively when I was curious about something, or working on a research paper. Google was my homepage for at least two of my four years in college (AltaVista was probably my homepage for the first couple years, if you can cast your memory back that far…) and Yahoo was never far from my address bar, but my cursor never strayed from those organic results.

To this day, every time I talk to someone about what I do at Wpromote, the conversation inevitably turns to organic search. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “Well, I hardly ever pay attention to the advertisements on (preferred search engine). Can you help raise my position in the search results?” Well, as a matter of fact, we have an entire department devoted to that: Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It will cost you more money and take far more time, but we can help move your site into the elusive and coveted Top Ten.

So then what? Let’s say you have a site that sells hand saws, and we get your site into the Top Ten for keyword searches of “hand saw.” Well, now you’re wedged somewhere between image results, a Wikipedia entry (see future blog entry), an article on “How to Choose the Right Handsaw”, and a few manufacturers websites with far more awareness and visibility. What have we accomplished? A spot in the Top Ten, and little (if any) additional traffic.

Internet advertising continues to struggle with its longstanding reputation for poor user experience. Anyone who’s ever been on a computer has probably dealt with pervasive and intrusive pop up ads. Many have had a computer infected with Spyware and other privacy-invasive software, which sometimes host viruses that render computers virtually worthless. User distrust of online advertising is understandable, if a bit misguided. As the saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Unfortunately, many internet users categorically ignore or dismiss all forms of advertising they see online.

Still, I don’t hear anyone suggesting online advertising is overvalued. When News Corp acquired MySpace for $580 million in 2005, you could hear jaws hitting keyboards worldwide. Now analysts are suggesting the site would be worth $15 billion in today’s market! Elsewhere, advertising megafirms are producing million dollar “Viral Videos” for clients to flood the web and rack up view counts on YouTube, all in the hope that they will translate to increased sales. Some of these videos don’t even feature the client’s name, logo, or slogan, but hope the subject on screen will subconsciously register with viewers. The traditionally held concepts of brand identity and recognition in the advertising industry are being shaken to their foundations as the World Wide Web continually repositions and reinvents itself.

Right. So we’ve got subliminally encoded videos and privacy-invasive software logging our every move online to figure out the way we think. Is that what people want? Seems to me that anytime an ad pops up in my face, even if (read: especially if) it’s advertising a product I want, it will only evoke Orwellian fears in my mind. People don’t want to be spied or preyed upon; but, when they want something, they want it as quickly and conveniently as possible. Which brings them right back to where we started: their trusted search engine.

Having said all this, the fundamental issue still remains: the Google and Yahoo advertising departments could stand to hire their own PR reps. Should they advertise their own advertising? How can they regain the trust of internet users who clearly want the advertised products, but fear the links will implant some sort of tracking software on their hard drives? For one thing, they can continue to offer the user-friendly advertising they’ve become known for. The cream always rises to the top. More and more people will eventually catch on to what’s happening on the right hand side of their search results pages. It certainly helps when online businesses have well built, highly targeted, and closely managed ad campaigns. I, for one, have come to discover that I’m actually more likely to find what I’m looking for under the sponsored links.


3 thoughts on “The Sponsored Link: Changing Perceptions of Online Advertising
  1. Holly says:

    Donnie Wahlberg was my favorite New Kid On The Block!!!

  2. Christian says:

    It’d be interesting to see as Google Maps grows even more popular how the perception of advertising on it becomes.

  3. Has anyone heard of this http://allgoogleadsforfree.com ? If so…is it for real?

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