Updated: November 3, 2015 1:43:37 pm
When some senior BJP leaders made an issue out of JD(U) ads for the Bihar elections allegedly appearing on a Pakistani news web site last week, it appeared as though they were ignorant of how Google ads worked. But when union Minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy raised the matter again in Patna on Sunday — even after he was soundly criticised on Twitter and he had deleted his original tweet — critics suspected the BJP was in fact attempting to cash in on the general ignorance of how ads are placed and targeted on the Internet.
So, was Rajiv Pratap Rudy wrong when he said Nitish Kumar was advertising on Pakistani web sites?
Yes. The ads were being served in India, and they could be on any web site. An advertisement for the Bihar polls, featuring pictures of Nitish Kumar and Hindi text in the Devanagari script, was appearing on the web site of The New York Times for viewers in Delhi on Monday evening. This is called ‘Google remarketing’.
And how exactly does Google remarketing work?
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If anyone saw a Nitish Kumar ad on a Pakistani news site it was because of Google remarketing, which pushes the same ads for you even though you may have moved on to another web site — because Google has sold ads on the initial site as well as the one you have moved to, even if the latter is from outside India. To see this at work, search for something on an e-commerce site like Flipkart, and then start browsing random sites on the web. It won’t take long for the product you searched for, or a competitor, to start showing up on the sites you are browsing. Again, if you search, say, for hotels in a particular city, you will start seeing ads from hotels in that city even on your Gmail page. The Nitish ad on the NYT web site mentioned above is likely to have appeared based on the browsing history of users at that IP address.
Does that mean Nitish Kumar’s team did not actually target advertisements on Pakistani web sites?
It would make no sense for Nitish’s team to spend precious ad dollars to place their ads in Pakistan, when voters are in Bihar. Also, Bihar election ads would be lost even on Indians who have been encountering them on web sites like YouTube, etc., while accessing the Internet from locations outside Bihar, and who are, presumably, not voters in the state. The logical reason why someone in, say, Tamil Nadu or Kerala, is still seeing these ads is probably bad or insufficiently accurate targeting, and is mostly a waste of the advertiser’s money.
But why do ads on the Internet need to be targeted to begin with?
Ad targeting is needed to ensure ads show up before the people who matter for that advertiser. Ads give the best results in clicks and conversion if they are targeted well. Someone who has been looking for cheap tickets on a travel web site but has not yet bought a ticket, might go back and complete the transaction if a relevant ad pops up while she is on an unrelated site. The Nitish ad would be best placed with content that has Bihar and BJP as keywords, and pops up before viewers who have the most chance of being influenced by the ad.
What are the various kinds of targeting on Google?
An advertiser can choose his targeting based on demography, location and even browsing preferences. Google says contextual targeting uses “factors as keyword analysis, word frequency, font size, and the overall link structure of the web, in order to determine what a web page is about and precisely match Google ads to each page”. There is placement targeting — where advertisers choose specific ad placements, or subsections of publisher web sites, on which to run their ads. Interest-based advertising reaches users on the basis of their interests, demographics, as well as their previous interactions. There is also language targeting — which allows ads to be targeted in a specific language, and topic targeting, which allows ads to appear on any page on the network that carries related content. Topic targeting can be used in combination with specific website placements and keyword targeting.
Anyone above the age of 18 can create an AdSense account and get ads placed through the Google Display Network on partner sites. Almost all web sites and blogs use GDN to monetise. “Stated simply, the Google Display Network will place your display ads against related content and audiences across thousands of sites,” says Google.
Is Google the only way to place ads on web sites?
No. There are a bunch of other ad networks that offer similar targeted ads — but none of them has the reach of Google. Even on Google, there is search-based advertising, where advertisers can target ads based on searches. Therefore, when someone is searching for, say, ‘Bihar’, advertisers can pay for their ad promoting Nitish Kumar or Sushil Modi to show up there. This targeting can be done for any keyword — or ‘AdWords’ as Google calls it — and the results can show up on search pages for anything from Nalanda University to litti-chokha recipes. Plus, advertisers can buy space directly on web sites, without going through Google. The ads that you see on any web site are, in fact, a mix of ads that appear through Google and those that are sold directly.
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