Selling ads on URLs

Recently, Lauren Weinstein posted a query for a way to bring a certain type of commentary on web sites to the web. In particular, he’s interested in giving people who are the subject of attack web sites, who may even have gotten court judgments against such web sites to inform people of the dispute by annotations that show up when they search in search engines.

I’m not sure this is a good idea for a number of reasons. I like the idea of being able to see 3rd party commentary on web sites (such as Third Voice and others have tried to do) and suspect the browser is a better place than the search engine for it. I don’t like putting any duty upon people who simply link to web sites (which is what search engines do) because the sites are bad. They may want to provide extra info on what they link to as a service to users, but that’s up to them and should be unless they are a monopoly.

In addition, putting messages with an agenda next to search results is what search engines do for a living. However, in that may be the answer.

Right now search engines like Google sell their ads based on keywords which will appear in search queries. I suggest they could also sell ads based on URLs or URL prefixes. In this case, any search results page which contained the URL would be considered a match for the ad. The ad would compete for position based on its bid price, like any other ad that matches that page, and like Google’s other pay per click ads, it would have to get click-throughs or it would not be run.

For example, today you could buy my name “Brad Templeton” and your ad would show up any time somebody searched for that, and appear to the right of the link to my own home page which shows up in the real search results. With this proposal, you could buy my URL home page, and your ad would show up on any query that showed my page in its results. (In fact, if my page shows up on the 32nd page of search results, your ad would not appear until the user went through all those pages, something you can’t do now.)

This would provide a tremendous mechanism for competitive advertising and probably could make the search engines a lot of money. Indeed, the problem is it might be too good, and too competitive. It would annoy the people whose sites are targeted a fair bit, since anybody who finds their site in the search engine any way at all would also be shown an ad hoping to compete with them.

For Lauren’s problem — trying to get the word out about a malicious site, there is another issue. I know that Google and other search engines have taken policies of not accepting “negative” or “attack” ads, as they might term them. To the point that if you want to buy an ad to say that “Starbucks is Evil” to appear on the keyword “Starbucks” they may refuse it. They want your money, but they seem to judge it’s not worth taking if they will get other hassles over the ads.

This has caused some criticism, because it means they turn down ads about important political issues and candidates. One friend wrote to me recently because he supports an organization that is trying to do scientific research on MDMA and other controlled substances. These organizations do indeed want to lobby for liberalization of the prohibitions on these drugs, of course, but doing research is a valid and important way to discuss the issue. However, his organization’s ads are routinely refused, presumably because the search engines don’t want the hassle of even dealing with illegal drug issues. I hope they can some day come to an easy way to divide the truly illegal ads from the legal but controversial ads, but for now they appear to have decided to avoid controversy altogether. Which means they may not want to take counter-ads at all. They certainly won’t want to give them away for free.

When the ads are competitive, rather than controversial however, I think they make sense. They can inform the consumer about competitors to vendors they find in searches, even indirectly. In fact, they may even be safer. Search Engines have several times run into trademark lawsuits claiming that when they sell ads on keywords which are trademarks, they are violating those trademarks. So far they are mostly ahead, though due to one case they do not allow advertisers to use other people’s trademarks in the ad copy, though they can use them in the keywords bought. While URLs and domain names sometimes include trademarks, URL patterns might well not include them, making it even safer.

For example, GEICO sued Google over people buying “GEICO” as an ad keyword. They lost, but their case was based on confusing the user. However, if you search for “car insurance” on Google, geico.com shows up, and this would trigger a URL ad. In this case the advertiser has not bought the trademarked word, and the user has not typed it, but the advertiser has bought “the sort of searches that the engine decides should lead to the geico.com web site” and gets it.

Buyers might want to specify that they only want to appear on pages where the target URL is in the first N results, or on all of them. Like all ads, the search engines would stop running them on sets of results that don’t generate enough clickthroughs to make the search engine money.

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