Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

Like many people, I use the Web to fill needs I formerly met using newspapers, magazines, telephone books, catalogs, printed maps, and reference books. Most of the information I need—whether for work or for personal use—can be found quickly and easily online. And yet, with this wonderful improvement in my ability to find information comes certain annoyances. For example, it’s not uncommon to find articles whose text is split across several different pages—not because there’s any technological need to do so, but in order to give advertisers more opportunities to put their ads in front of me. On some sites I can barely tell where the content itself is, because so much of the page is covered with ads of all kinds.

As much as I can complain about this advertising assault on innocent Web surfers, I am also a Web publisher and a Web advertiser, so I understand that each group has different yet equally important needs. As someone looking for information on the Web, I need high-quality content with a minimum of distractions. As a publisher, I need for my site to earn money—as with any business, there are bills and salaries to pay. And as an advertiser, I need for people to learn about (and purchase) my product, once again because this is the only way to stay in business. For quite a few years, the needs of publishers and advertisers came first, frustrating the very folks for whom all these Web sites were created. Predictably, this explosion of ads—especially large banners, obnoxious animated graphics, and pop-up windows—has caused a backlash. When it was no longer enough merely to ignore the ads, people began using software that blocks them altogether.

Use Your Words

But over the past couple of years, a new trend has emerged: a kinder, gentler approach to Web advertising that just might turn out to be a win-win-win scenario. Text-based ads, if used judiciously, are quite low on the annoyance scale for Web surfers; they can enhance, rather than clutter, a publisher’s site while producing more income than banner ads; and they are both less expensive to run and easier to create than banner ads, making advertisers happy.

Nothing about text-based ads in and of themselves is particularly new or revolutionary; after all, classified ads have been popular in newspapers for eons. But the Web—and in particular, the way mega-search engines such as Google index massive amounts of its content—can do wonders for those two or three lines of text.

One problem with conventional ads (of whatever sort) is relevance: You may find an ad for a restaurant in a magazine’s food section, but on the Web, it’s all too common for advertisers to place their ads indiscriminately. Besides being annoying to people reading the Web pages, inappropriately targeted ads are extremely ineffective. If I’m trying to learn about interior decorating, an ad for furniture may be entirely welcome, but I probably am not in the mood to click on an ad for a casino, discount software, or any of a thousand other things that may be advertised. Google addressed this problem cleverly by matching up keywords provided by advertisers with the words you enter as search terms. So if you’re searching for “furniture,” in addition to listing sites about furniture, Google displays “sponsored links”—ads from companies selling furniture or related items that include “furniture” as a keyword. Several other search engines have a similar feature.

But what if I go to a particular Web site that describes furniture-making techniques? Am I still doomed to see random banner ads? If that site has signed up with Google’s AdSense program (or any of numerous competing programs), the search engine looks at the content of each page on the site and dynamically delivers only ads that are appropriate to that page—in theory, at least. The system is imperfect, and sometimes inappropriate ads are still displayed, but this is still an improvement over haphazard advertising.

It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power

Contextual text-based ads for content sites, besides being more polite to the site’s visitors than older advertising methods, give advertisers more value for their money because they increase the probability that people viewing the ads are interested in them. But they also benefit the publishers of the sites that display them, because each time a user clicks one of the ads, the advertiser pays for the click—with some of the money going to the portal (Google, in this case) and some of it going to the site displaying the ads. The amount of money a site earns per click can range from a few cents to a few dollars, depending on the specifics of the campaign a given advertiser has set up. (By the way, Google enables the same technology to be used for displaying contextually relevant graphical ads—though many sites opt to stick with the less-obtrusive text ads.)

Since Interesting Thing of the Day began participating in the Google AdSense program, this site’s revenue has risen dramatically; AdSense revenue now accounts for more than two-thirds of our income. Of course, AdSense revenue is roughly proportional to the number of visitors; if this site had an average of, say, ten times as many visitors per day as it does currently, I could afford to write about interesting things full-time. I have a couple of friends who run Web sites with hundreds of times more visitors, and they are earning a handsome income indeed from their AdSense ads.

One of the most recent twists on contextual text-based ads, offered by several companies, is potentially even less intrusive than AdSense ads: a small text window much like a tool tip that pops up only when you mouse over specially marked words on a Web page. So you may see the word “furniture” appear with a double green underline on a certain page, signifying that by moving your pointer over it, an ad pertinent to furniture will be displayed. Similar mechanisms are sometimes used to display definitions of technical terms or other additional info. Their chief benefit is that they require no page real estate to be set aside exclusively for ads, making the display cleaner and easier to read.

Of course, text-based advertising can also be put to nefarious uses. I have received SMS text messages on my cell phone that contained advertisements; these are just as intrusive and upsetting as telemarketing calls. And all that junk email we all get could be called text-based advertising too. But the difference is that these messages are not merely unsolicited but without context. Although I hate spam, I daresay I’d hate it less if it were advertising things I was actually thinking about buying. Perhaps some day spammers, like other advertisers, will figure out that helping customers is a more effective moneymaking strategy than annoying them. —Joe Kissell

More Information

This article was featured in Carnival of the Web #4.

Articles about text-based ads:

Sites that offer text-based ads to advertisers and/or content providers include:

And, of course, there’s the granddaddy of all text-based Web advertising, craigslist, whose phenomenal success has shown just how useful the humble classified ad can be.