Bill Roth, Ulitzer Editor-at-Large

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The Oscars for the Top 5 Ad Targeting Fails (Semantic Tech Can Help)

Tired of being annoyed by online ads targeted at you that just make no sense? Have you evolved to unconsciously ignore those ad windows that often revoke a response best described as “huh?”? Any of these feelings sound familiar?

  • I looked for airline tickets/hotel reservation two days ago, even completed my booking. Why am I still being shown travel ads for days after?
  • Why is Facebook targeting me with random ads that have nothing to do with me? Why does Facebook think I’m overweight and looking to lose weight?
  • I think they think I’m a gender and sexual orientation different from what I really am!

And the list goes on!

If you’re looking to demystify why these things are happening to you, read on. Take consolation in knowing that you’re not alone. It happens to millions of online users every day. Here are some Ad Targeting methods that are predominant in the industry today:

1)      Audience Profiling:  Cookie tracking is used to profile audience members based on demographic information such as age, sex, address, marital status, disposable income, etc.  The user’s behavior (aka your behavior) is tracked by means of cookies that monitor the sites you visit and products you searched for.  This information is used at a later date to display an ad for a product even if it has no relation to your current browsing context. Ad targeting that’s based on user behavior can be creepy.

2)      Contextual Targeting: A true contextual targeting system needs to be able to zero in on the interest of the user based on the content that the user is reading. Many methods take a simplistic approach by focusing on the word or keywords in the content. Many times, the true context gets lost in translation.  This simplistic approach can often be dangerous and/or hilarious!

I’ve compiled my ‘Mis’-Oscar list for my top five genres of Ads that ‘Mis’-fired right here! 


  1. Mis- Placed

    Dell Ad Fail
  2. Mis-Scripted

    WaPo Ad fail

  3. Mis-Adventure

    Ship ad fail

  4. Mis-Animated

    Fear of Ducks Fail

  5. Tragic (truly!)

 tragic ad fail

Jokes apart, these examples demonstrate that keywords are a poor first approximation of interest or personalization.  However, our problems do not end there.  Growing concern around privacy (or lack thereof) and Personally Identifiable Information (PII) has led to recent EU legislation that restricts cookie tracking and collection – this is having a big impact on the quality and quantity of data now available for analysis and is impacting the revenue generated. And there’s more.   A massive challenge for the mobile advertising sector is most smartphones do not support cookies, so targeting techniques that are based on them are largely irrelevant.  This is compounded further by the growing data consumption on smartphones.

We can and must do better.  Here’s why: today’s digital consumer has just come to expect more, in every dimension. The overall Digital experience of a user is correlated to:

  • Quality of content they are exposed to
  • Quality of Ads they are exposed to

These dimensions are driving User Engagement metrics which directly impact Online sales (for retailers, Brand Effectiveness (for Advertisers), and Ad revenue (for Publishers).

So how do we do better? Where the conventional approaches fail is they have no appreciation for what the user is actually interested in at any specific point in time. They may know they live in a fancy house and earn $1M a year but they don’t know if that adds up to interest in buying a Rolex or a Jaguar. Another manner in which these fail is by working off the model that the value of an ad is on a website that specifically caters to the category that the ad represents. For example, the value of a camera ad is not solely on a camera website. It has as much value on a tech review page of a media news site (such as CNET).

Semantic Targeting

Here is where Semantic Targeting plays a ‘Lead Role’. A key difference between a true contextual advertising system and a conventional one is that instead of scanning a page for keywords with bids, the former examines all the words and identifies their meaning in context – e.g. they can understand that the term jaguar refers to a car as opposed to an animal. In this way it can really understand the user’s interests at a point in time and tailor contextually relevant ads as a result.

Semantic targeting technology also distills the emotion and sentiment that is housed in the text. This will be a big step towards avoiding the ‘mis’-fired ads. And as for the privacy and PII concerns, no cookies are needed for a semantic targeting technology. All of this means it is a perfect fit for the Mobile platform or to complement traditional analytic approaches on line.

Did Semantic Targeting just sweep up all the Oscars?

Editor’s Note: Yes it did

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Bill Roth

Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.