Will Personalized Search Create More Targeting Mistakes Like This?

By Paige Payne | Dec 10, 2009
More Articles by Paige


Do you ever have rouge sponsored links show up in your Gmail account that have you scratching your head wondering what crazy set of circumstances triggered what Google considers a personalized experience?

When I noticed the sponsored link below showing up in my account on more than one occasion, I couldn’t help but wonder what the contributing factors were:

Gmail Ad

What Triggers GMail Sponsored Links?

The way the GMail ad serving system works is similar to how AdWords works in Google search results.  The two parties controlling the sponsored links that appear in your GMail account are:

  1. The advertiser- control over various targeting settings in their AdWords account
  2. The Google Algorithm- plays matchmaker, triggering impressions based on what it considers the most relevant ad to your online behavior based on a number of factors in its automated system.

Sponsored links that show in your GMail account can be targeted in one of two ways (or both):

Keyword Targeting: Google looks at and matches keywords advertisers are bidding on the text of any opened message in any of your mail folders.

Location Targeting: Advertisers can select a location which they would like to target for a specific ad.  The Google algorithm determines your location using either your account settings, the IP addresses of the computer you are using, or the IP addresses of senders or links in your Gmail account you have clicked on.

So What Triggered My Rogue Sponsored Link?

As for my Google account, first things first, the country setting is set to the United States and the language English.  Yet for the ad that triggered, while the display URL was in English, the ad copy associated with the sponsored link was in a Chinese dialect.

As for the Landing Page of the ad, it appears to be for a Special Olympics event in Taiwan:

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I found that the landing page is consistent with the ad copy; a few titles and subheadings are in English while the primary messaging is not.  After some careful searching I was able to find a link for an English version of the landing page. While the site and ad promote a worthy cause,  I feel as though I’m not exactly the intended target for the sponsored link.

This is what fuels my curiosity- what in my Gmail account does Google’s automated system consider to be relevant to this sponsored link?  I mean, I do have a few messages with golf related keywords (the advertiser’s event is after all a golf tournament).  Yet in regards the language of the ad and site, I can not help but to speculate that it could be related to my occasional Google Talk/GChat conversations with a friend who currently lives in China.  After all, Google does have a wealth of data about me outside of my GMail usage, based on everything from Google Calendar entries to regular search queries.  What would be the point of storing all that data other than to incorporate it into their various targeting algorithms?

Sponsored Links and Personalized Search

Whatever the case may have been, this happening is simply a funny example of how given the right circumstances, Google’s automated system can occasionally make mistakes when it comes to delivering a personalized experience for the end user. This instance is certainly not a huge cause for concern, nevertheless, it does lead to other questions related to Google’s announcement last Friday, Dec 4th, of personalized search on an opt-out basis.

With personalized search set as the default (whether or not you’re logged into your Google account), even more data will be collected and incorporated into the sponsored links you are shown in any Google Product or Service.  Will ad targeting become more accurate?  Will users think it’s worth giving up more privacy?  Or will it become more complicated, with more targeting mistakes like the one above?

Not only is the progression of personalized search as a whole something to be mindful of, but above all else, are we (the end users, website owners, advertisers) giving it the attention it deserves?  As Danny Sullivan points out in his recent blog post Google’s Personalized Results: The “New Normal” That Deserves Extraordinary Attention, “Google made the biggest change that has ever happened in search engines, and the world largely yawned.”

To find out more about personalized search be sure to check out other resources on the topic straight from Google News.

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