The Banner Ad Strikes Back

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Remember banner ads? They’re back. And depending on your point of view, this could be bad news.

Once the staple of web advertising, banners have taken a back seat in search engine marketing over the past five years.

When I first began working with banner ads in 1998, the average banner received a 2% clickthrough rate.  Within four years, that average had dropped to 0.25%. The reason was simple: web surfers had become banner-blind. People had become so used to banners that they were simply ignoring them.

It’s now late in 2007 and banners are making a comeback, thanks to new behavioral targeting models that match the banners you see to your web surfing habits.

That is the core of DoubleClick’s DART behavioral targeting technology. When an ad runs on its network of sites, DoubleClick tracks who clicks it. Because the DoubleClick network has a vast reach, the company can also track much of the web surfing behavior of those who click the ad.  If your browsing behavior is similar to people who clicked on an ad, then odds are DoubleClick will display the same ad to you.

At its best, behavioral targeting is a logical mechanism for market segmentation and psychographic targeting. Are you advertising a luxury hotel? Only a quarter of travelers typically fall into the luxury travel market segment. If behavioral targeting ensures that your ad is shown to that segment, you could see a big improvement in ad performance.

At its worst, behavioral targeting raises troubling privacy concerns. At what point does market segmentation cross the line into an invasion of privacy?

Banner networks have defended behavioral targeting by pointing out that the data collected is anonymous, without tracing back to the surfer’s name. This is, in theory, no different from the anonymous visitor tracking that webmasters perform with site traffic software like WebTrends, Omniture, or Google Analytics.

DoubleClick is not alone in developing behavioral targeting algorithms. Yahoo! has developed similar technology, and recently announced the acquisition of BlueLithium, a leading behavioral targeting ad network specializing in a technique called pixel remarketing.

But DoubleClick’s behavioral targeting presents special concerns because the company has a past history of privacy issues.

In 2000, the company triggered an FTC investigation when it announced plans to merge its online behavioral data with the personal information stored in its Abacus direct marketing database.  That move would have allowed DoubleClick to associate online behavior with an individual’s name, address, and phone number.

Google is in the process of acquiring DoubleClick. The acquisition is currently under FTC review and has prompted a chorus of complaints from online privacy advocates.

Once Google owns DoubleClick, advocates point out, it will have the potential to merge DoubleClick’s behavioral information with personal information collected through Google user accounts.

Of even more concern is the potential to merge behavioral targeting with personalized search and the information available through an individual’s search history.

Will Google users rebel if they feel their privacy is threatened? It depends on whether or not they notice.

In 2004, Google triggered a firestorm of controversy when it tried to insert AdSense ads into the emails of its Gmail users.  Many people found it unnerving that what they write about in an email message could cause an ad to be inserted.

In the future it may be possible that the search query you perform on Google in the morning determines the banner ad you see somewhere else on the web later in the day.

Is this a good thing? For marketers it might be, but the general public may not agree. Their response to “The Revenge of the Banner Ad” could be loud and long.

About the Author

Tom Dahm is the President of BridgePose Search Engine Marketing and past founder of NetMechanic. He has been optimizing websites since 1996.

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