The real problem with online advertising

We’ve all heard the complaints about online advertising: it invades our privacy, it’s ruining traditional media, it’s an annoying distraction. But for all that, the advertising companies tell us, we’re supposed to be getting a valuable benefit: advertising that is personalized to our interests. Here’s the real problem, then: despite years of tracking our every move and mining all our data, personalized ads still suck.

On Facebook right now, I see a Microsoft Store ad for the new Surface Pro 3. Fair enough, I guess: I’m a tech geek and I recently read a couple reviews of the Surface Pro 3, because I’m curious about it. Yet I’m not in the market for a computer (in fact, Facebook should know that I recently purchased one, since I posted that information recently). And, even if I was, it wouldn’t be the Surface Pro 3, and it wouldn’t be from the Microsoft Store. Another recent ad (I think also on Facebook) that I saw repeatedly was for Digital Storm, the company from which I did buy my new PC. Yet I continued seeing the same ad, with the same picture of a computer I looked at briefly and decided I didn’t want, well after purchasing the one I did want.

Alongside an article about the Boston Celtics on the Boston Herald’s site, I currently see ads for CrashPlan (an online backup service I’ve been using for over a year) and a coupon for SCOTTeVEST with an exhortation to “see our most popular items,” even though I’ve seen their popular items many times and own one of them already.

On my work PC, I’ve recently been seeing two ads pop up repeatedly: one for my company’s own product and another encouraging me to apply to Year Up, the program for urban young adults where I used to work.

It’s not that these ads aren’t relevant to me. Clearly they are. Yet they’re not at all useful to me. To make them useful, they would have to expose me to brands and products that I’m not already thinking about. If you know I like Digital Storm computers, show me ads from other custom PC makers. If I wear SCOTTeVEST travel clothes, show me ads for other companies that sell travel gear. Of course, quality control is also important: these are companies known for high quality products, so if you show me ads from scammers and counterfeiters, I’m not going to be interested. But the advertisers should know that already.

As it is, the only ads I ever consider clicking on are the top few sponsored results in Google searches. Often these are exactly what I’m looking for. Of course, they’re also often the same as the top few organic search results (I just searched for “Hyundai,” and was the first ad and the first search result). So, great, I get really useful ads the one time I don’t need them. (And, sorry, advertisers: you’re paying for clicks you would have gotten anyway.)

I recognize that I may not be a typical consumer and that my browsing and purchasing habits may be different from others’. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Ads haven’t yet gotten personalized enough to understand how I’m different and to make the ads useful. In aggregate, online advertising works, if the amount of money being poured into it is any indication. But for me, at least, it still sucks.