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Web Watch by Leslie Walker
Relevant Ads No Illusion, Google Says

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_____Live Online_____
Transcript: Columnist Leslie Walker discussed the latest technology trends with DEMO conference producer Chris Shipley.
_____Recent Columns_____
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By Leslie Walker
Sunday, March 9, 2003; Page H07

Google, the popular Web search engine, thinks it can apply its secret search sorcery to Internet advertising and magically produce better ads.

Instead of just showing ads on search-results pages, Google announced last week that it has begun selling and delivering ads to other Web sites, including to news pages at some of Knight Ridder Digital's online newspaper sites (the San Jose Mercury News, Detroit Free Press, Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer).

"We are giving publishers an opportunity to present more relevant advertising to their users," said Jonathan Rosenberg, Google's vice president of product management.

Google claims its expertise in indexing more than 3 billion Web pages using secret algorithms allows it to create a smarter ad network. Because those formulas analyze the content of each page, Google says it can perform the wizardry of selecting and showing ads relevant to almost any page.

That's a parlor trick that has long eluded the Internet ad industry -- showing ads closely related to what people are doing online, on the theory that they'll be more interested and likely to click on them. Such efforts have largely failed, and most online ad targeting is still based on the general subject of a site or its sub-sections, not on the content of individual pages.

Internet ad networks have proven to be a tough business for other reasons, too, including the enormous technical and business challenges involved in serving ads on behalf of thousands of advertisers to thousands of different Web sites.

But Google executives say they are better positioned to perform ad magic on a massive scale because of their huge search business. Google is the virtuoso of Internet search, serving more than 200 million queries a day at its own site (www.google.com) and those of partner sites such as Yahoo and America Online.

Google also has been steadily building a paid listing business, selling "keywords" to advertisers and then showing ads related to user queries on search-results pages. Advertisers pay only when viewers click on their ads. Google's software factors in how often people click on each ad to help determine the order in which they're shown.

Google announced this week that its paid search business has more than 100,000 advertisers. The more ads it can choose from, the company contends, the more likely it will find one relevant to any given page. Prior efforts at Web-wide targeting faltered partly because the ad networks had limited ad selection, said Tim Armstrong, Google's vice president for advertising.

For now, companies buying Google's search listings are getting free ads in its new program. But starting March 12, advertisers will have to opt out of the non-search ads or start paying for each click from non-search sites such as Knight Ridder's.

Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, said the move makes sense for Google but represents "a huge departure" for the young company because distributing ads to content pages "isn't a search activity."

Google executives, however, insist their mission hasn't changed. "Our core is still search," Rosenberg said. "What it is about is marrying a user to the right information. . . . In this context, I view ads as another form of information on the Web."

E-mail Leslie Walker at walkerl@washpost.com.


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