July 20, 2008

Cat retirement homes, spam tortilla sandwiches, and the dubious relevancy of Gmail “contextual” ads

I’m a big fan of outsourcing one’s email to Google, and then continuing to use one’s favorite email client. (I’ve never switched away from Eudora.) Accordingly, I rarely use the actual Gmail interface – except when traveling and hence away from my desktop computer.

For the past week I have been on vacation, logging into Gmail a lot. And so I started noticing the contextual ads that appear above the lists of messages. Well, it turns out that – well, on the whole they’re not terribly contextual. Let me explain.

Some ads are just highly generic, most commonly for news headline services and the like. Examples include ads for ESPN, Dictionary.com, the New York Times, Wired, Rotten Tomatoes, the International Herald Tribune, and more. In most cases, these ads link to a specific story that bears no evident relationship to the email up on the screen. These happens most commonly when I’m in my inbox or the like, rather than looking at specific mail, but also have appeared over email on subjects as diverse as consulting session scheduling, cat-sitting, and an invitation to a Microstrategy sales seminar in Hartford, CT.

Some ads obviously are meant to be more contextual, but miss the mark. Typical examples include:

Most of those are worse fits than one would normally see with Google AdWords or AdSense. Others – while still not close enough to the mark to generate much in the way of productive clicks – are at least more in line with what one sees from those programs. Examples of those include:

And some ads are complete head-scratchers. Two such were:

Oh yes – there were a few actually in-context hits as well.

It’s easy to come up with theories as to why Gmail ad relevancy should be a lot worse than that for AdWords or AdSense. If you search on something, or seek out a web page, you’re making your interests pretty clear. If you’re just receiving and opening email, however, then:

  1. What you’re looking for may not be so obvious.
  2. You’re much more likely to not (at the moment) be seeking external information at all.

However – all this is based on just a week of paying attention to the ads. And I haven’t been using the search or filter functionality in Gmail, which might be great clues for additional context.

So what are your experiences? Is anybody seeing Gmail ads that are a lot more relevant that what I’ve been getting? Please share!

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