Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why you see the Ads you see

Since we've launched Clickochet (as in "Click Ricochet", an Ad Trading Network), I get a rather constant flow of questions about how we do ad targeting.

Honestly, I've never been a person to use an Ad-blocker and the reason is that if I go to a website that brings me value, it's a small price to pay to see ads in exchange. The value that Google search brings me EVERY day is immense - and all I have to do is view ads that once in awhile are actually what I was looking for anyway? Deal. Reddit actually thanks its users for not using ad-block.

The trick here however is to bring people "good", "quality" and "relevant" ads. And it is of course, our goal at Clickochet is to try to bring you the most relevant ads to you as we can.

So, after writing a few responses to nice Clickochet users about how our ad-targeting works, I've decided instead to simply - let you see for yourself. At least for now, let you into the belly of the beast.

After spending a good number of months staring at ads, I'm a bit obsessed with them now. It's rather rare that I don't go to a page with Clickochet ads and push my nose to the screen wondering "Why is THAT ad showing THERE?!"

I usually (usually) then continue that self-conversation with, "oh. oh. ok. that makes sense." But to be able to answer that for myself, Clickochet uses some diagnostic cookies to turn on extra information about why you see the ads you see. And actually - more important for me - it has facilities to tell me why you don't see the ads you don't see.

A few disclaimers about what you're about to see. Pretty much, 100% of this stuff will change. Ad targeting is an exercise in perpetual tweaking and change - and given the infancy of our network, you can count that statement as double. Also, keep in mind that Clickochet is a new network. We're working furiously to build the best network for our customers that we can - but our targeting mechanisms are relatively boilerplate at this time. Finally, this stuff isn't for general consumption - in other words, it's not meant to be "pretty" nor am I guaranteeing it works across browsers (so use firefox or chrome).

So to begin, in a separate browser window or tab, hop over to one of Clickochet's favorite yoga sites, Qi-Yoga.

Nice ads huh? And chances are you'll see an ad like this:

I guess you'll see that particular ad because:

1) I chose "yoga" specifically because we have a few, but not too many yoga sites in the system (at the moment) so that determinism helps writing a semi-predictable blog post.
2) This ad is contextually relevant to qi-yoga and our contextual system realizes that. (the two sites are not otherwise related)
3) I don't know the fine folks over at but I slipped them a nice pile of extra impression credits so that their ad won't "run out" in the middle of my examples.

Ok - keep up in a browser window and open yet another browser window (welcome to my world). This time go here:

You don't have to sign-up or be logged in. Again, this is arguably an internal page. Press the "Turn On" button for both options. Note: The 2nd option CAUSES A POPUP for every page you load that has Clickochet ads. Again, this is a diagnostic page no one sees unless the turn on that cookie. And incidentally, to follow along, you'll need to tell your browser to "allow popups" from I'd guess.

Great. Now refresh the page.

Welcome to the diagnostic view. Ad titles are now color coded and have been suffixed by a single character. That character signifies the targeting mechanism used that turned that ad "on".

The popup window is a list of most of the ads that were considered for showing on this page. (I say "most" because some might have been short-circuited once we found 3 acceptable ones.)

The popup you see should look something like this:

The first 3 ads in the diagnostic ad window are the ones that were shown. The rest (and sometimes the list is long, are the ones that were rejected). The lists will perpetually change as you hit refresh (the system knows when you hit refresh over and over and no one is charged or awarded credits for that behavior). Also, keep in mind that refreshing the page a few times will help our examples here but aren't a normal ad viewer use-case. People typically see one set of ads and then leave the page. So you'll likely start getting less relevant ads the more refresh.

So, what are the title suffixes you might see? The represent the different ad targeters and specifically which ad targeter decided to show you that particular ad.

(C) - A "contextual" ad, for some broad definition of "contextual". Back to my theme that "everything will change", the contextual engine is finding its sea legs. It sometimes expands its search and sometimes contracts it to find ads that could be relevant (it then keeps track and hopefully finds a happy place). Hence, you might see "contextual" ads you don't think are all that contextual. Don't worry - if that's true, they'll cycle themselves out eventually. Again, I chose the yoga theme here because of the median set size of what the contextual targeting finds.

(A) - A "site affinity" ad. Refresh the page a few times if needed to see HealthAndYogaRetreats again. You'll notice it is an affinity site. Yes its contextual, but more importantly, people have clicked from qi-yoga to healthAndYogaRetreats a few times. One click won't do much - but a pattern of clicking and the system takes notice. Those sites become (spiritually) linked in the system.

This is a very important feature beyond contextual advertising. The classic example is that "Budweiser" ads might do very well on a "Nascar" website. But contextual analysis might not determine that (in fact, drinking and driving might be a negative contextual correlation!). But of course let's hope the budweiser drinkers are watching the races, not participating. So when they click the budweiser ads, the system realizes "huh, for some reason these two very unrelated things have an affinity for each other".

Affinity relationships perpetually degrade and require, again, a pattern of clicking to keep them alive.

(U) - An underserved ad. Simply put, there are ads in the system that haven't found a solid niche to display in. These ads can be pretty non-relevant at times but the idea is that they won't individually show up all that often on any given site. And showing them serves two purposes -

1) to get underserved ads some impressions, and
2) remember site affinities from above? How do we 'discover' site affinities if we only show direct contextual ads. Showing ads from a larger pool gives the affinity system a chance to discover unexpected affinities.

You'll see more underserved ads if you refresh the page a lot - which again, isn't the "normal" use case.

(1) - actually, any numerical digit you see means we're running an experiment. Again, every last thing here is subject to change, but experiments are even more transient than that. One experiment we're working on is transitive relationships between site affinities. So if Budweiser ads are good on Nascar sites, and then we discover Nascar ads are good on fishing sites - are Budweiser ads good on fishing sites? (I'm guessing that's an affirmative)

If you'll notice, none of the targeting above has to do with YOU (or more specifically your browser since we never know about "you"). All those targeting mechanisms have to do with the sites, ads, and contexts involved. Site affinity is based off clicks but it's really about all clicks in the system - not really about you.

That being said - it's purely possible that although you like both budweiser and nascar - you might like yoga too. And although you are an awesome beer-drinking race-car-driving yogi - that's probably not a common combination. Showing a yoga ad on a nascar site as a general rule is probably wrong - but for you specifically, it might be right.

So, what we can do for you specifically is try to find things that you like. This is of course where people get worried about advertisers finding out private information about users. Clickochet does not keep personally identifiable information about anyone who views the ads (please see our privacy policy on the site). We keep a cookie noting where a browser goes (and note that if people share a browser, that browser becomes a collection of all browsing destinations, regardless of any given user).

The goal again is to show you the most relevant ads possible. That brings the most value to people viewing ads and the most value to people showing ads. Of course, Clickochet has an opt-out cookie (see the front page of Clickochet for a link or go directly to to turn it on). But! Don't turn it on just yet or the rest of this blog article won't work!

Ok. Let's go to another Clickochet ad site - oh, wait, you're already on one. This blog has come Clickochet ads on it in the right-hand side-bar. Ok, note the ads you see there and .. hit refresh. Here, I'll bookmark this blog entry for you so you can pick up reading here.


Ok .. hit refresh.


Ok.. great. Now.. what ads shown? There's a high probability (note: EVERYTHING involved here is a probability) that you'll see a red ad for Qi-yoga followed by the suffix: (R). (if not refresh the page once or twice)

(R) retargeting. It seems almost counter-intuitive but the ad industry has plenty of documentation that people will click on things they already have seen - and/or simply want to see again. The system now knows you went to (because I told you to earlier in this case). And thinks, "Hey.. this person likes that site" - so it gives a reasonable probability to show ads for qi-yoga to get you to go there again.

There's surprising advantages to this. If you liked qi-yoga and saw it last week, you might be interested in seeing if the site is updated. Qi-yoga likes this because as with all websites, there is a lot of bounce - people come, go, and never come again, This reminds you of that great site you saw. Clickochet likes this because it keeps you within our community of sites that are helping each other exchange traffic.

And then.. we can run experiments based off that correlation. Maybe there is a site affinity between this blog and qi-yoga. Or, maybe its simply a personal preference of yours and maybe we can help you discover other yoga sites. The possibilities are endless.

If this all seems odd that all this is happening in the background, I'll note that Clickochet is a newbie in this arena. Every ad system out there does this and more (goto, browse some shoes and then browse around the web - see how many zappos ads you then see).

As I said - you can opt out of this type of browser-based targeting on our opt-out page if you like. But there's nothing more nefarious there than simply trying to show you ads for things you might be interested in.

Again, our goal is help our community of sites trade traffic for traffic. As we say in our FAQ - give an ad, get a few - the system really does work. And it will work better and better with the more value we can bring to everyone involved including publishers, advertisers, and web-passers-by.

Sign-up (it's free!) at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't mind text-only adverts. But I make no apologies for using ad-blocking to filter out bandwidth-heavy graphics (as a genuine old 2400 baud modem user I am still conscious of bandwidth).

One of my biggest concerns about contextual advertising is potential embarrassment.

Imagine my girlfriend asks me what I think about some handbags she likes.. or maybe in a private discussion she links to some underwear she's thinking of buying. Then I rock up to work the next day and while I'm browsing the internet I get a number of targeted adverts about women's products. You can guess what my colleagues will think about me.

At least with non-contextual advertising there is less potential for embarrassment.

This targeted advertising could back-fire as embarrassment might provide an even stronger-than-ever incentive to block advertising.

For advertising to survive it must be observable, but not dominant. If it becomes too dominant (such as flashing adverts, huge billboards, etc) it will be destroyed.