Contextually Irrelevant

July 6, 2007

Vibrant Media is the largest and fastest growing provider of “in-text” advertising. You have undoubtedly encountered these ads; they usually take the form of green double-underlined keyword phrases embedded within the body copy of a web page. When users mouse-over the highlighted keyword phrase a small window appears featuring text, flash, or video advertisements. 

I presume this ad format is highly effective because the ads are contextually relevant and fall within the user’s focus of attention. Other Internet advertising formats struggle for attention in an age where banner blindness prevails.  

Unfortunately, far too many in-text ads are contextually irrelevant. 

Before jumping into my main criticism of in-text advertising, let’s review some of the more frequent criticisms of this format. 

Those tricky advertisers

Many critics complain that the double-underline is too similar to a traditional hyperlink and tricks users into clicking on an ad. This criticism is partially valid: I would agree that users who encounter in-text ads for the first time might assume double-underlined text to be a hyperlink. However, in-text ads don’t behave like hyperlinks – you can’t jump to another web page by simply clicking on an in-text ad. My guess is most web users quickly learn that double-underlined words are advertisements.

Like any new UI convention, there is always a learning curve – but this learning curve is exceptionally shallow. 

Keep in mind there is a free-lunch crowd who have a dripping disdain for any form of advertising. You can easily see how this ad format would rub them the wrong way. 

Editorial dishonesty and corporate cynicism

Critics also complain that in-text advertising destroys the editorial integrity of the publisher. There is undoubtedly a risk of doing this. Let’s look at a couple scenarios: 

A news publisher runs a favorable story about a company’s contribution to a charity organization and coincidentally, in-text ads promoting the company’s products appear within the copy. Cynical readers will perceive the publisher is attempting to monetize their editorial content by colluding with the advertiser. Even though Vibrant Media’s policies and methods don’t allow publishers to choose advertisers or keywords that will appear within their content, most users will be ignorant of this fact. 

The perceptions generated by in-text ads can cut both ways: Imagine a news publisher running an unfavorable story about a company’s pollution emissions while in-text ads promoting their products appear within the story. In this scenario most readers would perceive the company as either cynical or out of touch.  

Universally inappropriate?

These criticisms are entirely valid but we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water. In-text advertising is inappropriate for some publishing models, but certainly not all. Vibrant Media should be drawing the line and not leave this decision to publishers. News, opinion, and review publishers run a huge risk of destroying user trust by using this ad format, but Vibrant Media also runs the risk debasing their ad product. 

Entertainment and lifestyle publishers are a much better fit for this format. I’ll show a good example later in this post. 

Good idea, sloppy implementation

In-text advertising networks like Vibrant Media have done a poor job of managing the implementation of this format and are in jeopardy of ruining good thing. I really like this ad format but somewhere along the way Vibrant forgot their value proposition to users: contextual relevancy. And because they’re failing to deliver on that value proposition, they will cultivate distrust (piss off users) and eventually lose publishers. 

The Good

I found several excellent examples of how in-text advertising should work. iVillage.com runs Vibrant Media ads throughout their site and for the most part provides value to both the advertiser and the user.

The ad below appears in an article titled Spring Pant Guide: Best Trends. The keyword phrase “wide belt” opens an ad specifically promoting a wide variety of belts at Urban Outfitters.

This ad is contextually relevant and adds value to the user experience. I would be willing to bet the CTR and conversions from an ad like this is much higher than traditional display advertising or PPC formats like Google AdSense.Wide belt

The Bad

 The next example also appears on ivillage.com and demonstrates how in-text ads can be both contextual but irrelevant.  The keyword is “shampoo”, but the ad is promoting a hair coloring product. Because the article is about hair-styling options this ad could be considered contextual, but the ad is completely irrelevant to the keyword. 

In-text ad keywords are a promise, and in this example, the advertiser broke the promise by not delivering a solution relevant to shampoo. As a result, the advertiser looks spammy, the publisher looks inept, and the user feels tricked. Trust has been broken, and users who experience a string of broken promises like this one will not look kindly on in-text advertising.


The ugly

Unfortunately it is quite easy to find numerous examples of “ugly”  in-text advertising. 

My first two examples result from Vibrant Media’s inability to manage keyword phrases with double meanings.  

In the first example, the keyword “worms” appears in an article about IM security threats. However, the ad is used to promote the Happy D Ranch Worm Farm. This ad is both out-of-context and irrelevant to readers and makes both the advertiser and publisher look foolish.  Vibrant Media, the publisher, and even the advertiser probably feel this isn’t a big deal. No harm no foul, right? The problem is the user is saddled with the role of relevancy filter and I don’t think they appreciate doing this job.


In the second example, the keyword “ski” appears in an article about boats and water skiing. Unfortunately the ad promotes “Ski Resorts”. This ad is both largely out-of-context and irrelevant to the reader. The advertiser in this case is Live Search.

Apparently Live Search is a large advertiser with Vibrant Media and focuses their buys on high value keyword phrases – which brings up another problem with Vibrant Media: It is common to run across a publisher running several in-text ads from the same advertiser on a single page. Users perceive this as spammy, especially when the advertiser isn’t directly offering a product relevant to the keyword phrase. 

In-text publishers and advertisers need to get their act together and implement negative keyword phrases and other techniques to help eliminate the pitfalls of double meanings. Ski My last example illustrates an all too common contextually irrelevant advertisement. This example is from the same article on IM security threats discussed earlier, but the keyword this time is “security”. The advertiser in this example is Dice, an information technology jobs site.  This advertisement is obviously contextual. Readers of this article are likely to have a strong interest in finding a better  job in the IT industry. They may also be an IT Security professional. The problem with this ad isn’t context, but relevance.  First, the keyword itself isn’t descriptive enough to signal a relevant advertisement. “Security” is a complete crap-shoot for the user – the publisher and advertiser is wasting the reader’s time. Second, tech job opportunities are only tangentially relevant to the content of this article.SecurityFinal thoughtsIn-text advertising isn’t sexy, but it could be one of the most powerful Internet ad formats available today. My hope is in-text ad networks like Vibrant Media will get their act together and focus more on making their ads both contextual and relevant. Every contextually irrelevant ad they serve diminishes the value proposition to consumers and creates distrust. 

Please, don’t ruin a good thing.


One comment

  1. Thank you so much for the great information. I have been weighing out the good and the bad for several days now and after reading your blog I now feel comfortable holding out for a few more months until Vibrant get’s their act together. Thank you so much and God Bless.


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