Yes, contextual advertising is full of woo-woo. Get over it already.

The reason that Google is taking over the known universe (instead of Skynet) has a great deal to do with their inventions in the areas of advertising. They have a stable of advertising products with spiffy names like AdWords and AdSense. Millions of dollars flow through these programs every month. The ads sometimes seem ubiquitous.

Advertising on skeptic websites can present interesting problems. In order to understand why this is, you need to understand how contextual ad placing works, and how that interacts with what we do. Read on.

Keywords are crucial

Typical presentation of Google AdSense on a skeptic web page

Typical presentation of Google AdSense on a skeptic web page

The glue that ties it all together and makes it so bloody profitable is keyword-based context. Google analyzes the content of pages where ads appear, be they search engine result pages (SERPs) or other pages, and chooses an ad that relates to the context based on keywords in the search terms or page content. So if I’m searching for something relating to a car, the ads that appear might be for tires or oil changes or other car related products.

It seems like an obvious idea now, but it was quite innovative when it was introduced. And it is phenomenally successful! It turns out that tying ads to context results in a people clicking the ads at a much higher rate than you get with previous non-contextual methods.

As this program and the web itself took off, Google found that there was a potential to sell more ads than they could place on their own web properties. They also needed the widest possible set of contexts so that they could sell ads for every possible set of keywords. So they opened up the program to third party websites. This provided a fantastic way for smaller web publishers including bloggers to take in some revenue.

Now, there are many sites such as this blog or my site What’s The Harm, that are free or very inexpensive to operate. The owner of the site just covers the costs and there is no need for a source of income such as ads.

But as sites grow larger, they can become quite costly. This might be surprising to you since so many services on the web these days are free. But free blogs and other such services are predicated on the fact that most users attract a miniscule amount of traffic. A site such as the JREF Forum, which gets several million page views per month, can use hundreds or even thousands of times the bandwidth of a small free blog. This bandwidth must be paid for.

Since most or all skeptic work is being done by non-profit organizations, this can be quite a problem. In order to cover these costs, various options can be pursued. There are affiliate programs such as Amazon’s, which I have written about before. And there is contextual advertising. Advertising is very attractive because it is easy to implement and can produce revenue on just about every page of your site.

The skeptical advertising conundrum

Now, when you apply this technology to a skeptical website (or any other site that has a message in opposition to that of others), you notice an interesting problem. The keywords you are using are the same as those of your enemy. If your enemy has money and a product to sell (and woo-woos usually do), then they will be buying ads. And guess where those ads appear? On your website, often next to your article decrying their product.

If your skeptical website is highly specialized (as I highly recommended in that previous post), you could possibly work around this problem by blocking ads on an advertiser-by-advertiser basis. Indeed, most ad programs allow you to do this precisely so you don’t have to carry ads from your own competitors. But the mechanisms provided do not scale for general purpose skeptical web sites. (Google, for instance, lets you block 200 URLs, but there are tens of thousands of woo-woo websites to block).

And so, skeptic sites end up carrying ads for woo. Humorous, isn’t it?

Well, some people don’t think so. It seems that every time a major science or skeptical website adds contextual advertising to cover their costs, the result is as predictably bad as a Sylvia Browne cold reading. A huge outcry erupts amongst the users of the site. “We are helping the bad guys!” “We are advertising their crap products!” “It’s unethical!”

A Twitter user complains about Google ads on Universe today

A Twitter user complains about Google ads on Universe today

Just last night I saw such an outcry on Twitter in regards to the Universe Today site. (Not a skeptic site itself, but it shares a forum with Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog). It is not important who exactly said this (so the image is cropped), just the sentiment. You can see it at right.

This is indeed fairly typical. Just a few months ago someone noticed a numerology banner ad on Phil Plait’s blog, and started a thread at the JREF forum to discuss it. Further searches show that these discusssions pop up regularly on that and other forums.

Since I was the guy who wrote an entire post about an obscure HTML tag in an effort to deny “link juice” to woo-woo websites, you’d think I would heartily agree with this complaint.

You would be wrong.

Get over it!

I think this type of outcry is another case where we skeptics get so caught up in winning a battle, that we end up losing the war. We’ll spend hours online arguing the ethics of these ads, meanwhile the people we are battling are happily selling their products to naive customers that we failed to reach.

And frankly, we also need to have more of a sense of humor in situations like these. Come on, you have to admit its kind of funny when a Scientology ad appears right next to a photo of someone giving them the finger, as it did recently for one of my vacation photos.

But lets look at the facts. There really is very little substantial reason to get upset at these ads when they appear on skeptic web sites. In fact, perhaps we should celebrate them.

We are not giving them attention, we are taking their money.

The simple presence of these ads does not afford the source any profit or gain. The entities that place these ads must pay for them. Depending on exact advertising program being used, they are either paying for visibility or for click-throughs. But either way, a portion of the fee they pay goes to the ad placement service (such as Google) and a portion goes to the website.

In other words, money is going directly from a woo-woo’s ad budget into a skeptic’s pocket. This is a good thing.

It is worth noting that in cases of pay-per-click ads, skeptics should never ever suggest that someone click one of these ads simply to ensure that more money is being wasted by a woo-woo. Such clicks are referred to as click fraud. They are a clear violation of the terms of service of advertising programs.

We are redirecting their ads to a non-receptive audience

Frankly, most of the people who read skeptic web sites are already friendly to our message. (In other words, we tend to preach to the choir. This is a problem that deserves its own blog post, something for another day). As a result, these ads are being placed in precisely the wrong context for them to do any good! They are, by virtue of being on our sites, hidden from the reach of potential victims.

There are exceptions, of course. Sites that do target (and achieve) significant non-skeptic viewership might want to be more sensitive to this issue. But please be scientific about it. Measure your audience using an analytics package and make an informed decision about what to block and what to keep.

They’re not just ads, they’re research opportunities.

Despite the grumblings of jaded old skeptics, there are new things popping up in our topic areas all the time. There are new psychic personalities, new alternative medicine treatments and new forms of online scams. As skeptics, its our job to be aware of these things as they crop up, so we can help protect people from them.

When you see an ad for a new psychic or a remedy you’ve never heard of, click it and educate yourself. You’re not giving the woo anything other than a meaningless tick on their page counter. They can’t take that to the bank.

Again, its worth emphasizing that while it is fine to click the ad to read the content, don’t click just for clicking’s sake. You’ll get yourself or your favorite webmaster in trouble.

Ads remind us we are fighting some well funded enemies

We encounter so many laughable characters in skepticism, people like David Icke or the infamous “Time Cube” guy, that it is easy to become complacent. Kooky characters such as that are easily derided and marginalized.

But some alternative medicine treatments are multi-billion dollar (per year) industries. Just one vendor of homeopathic remedies, Boiron, takes in 300 million euros in revenue each year! Compare that to the budget of your favorite skeptical foundation and you realize we are truly fighting a David vs. Goliath battle.

That kind of money can fund millions of these online ads. Having these ads appear regularly on our own web sites acts as a constant reminder of the enormity of it all. As Sun Tzu said, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Chill out, for pete’s sake

Honestly, skeptics are so serious! Relax, take a breath, and have a good laugh at the fact that an ad for the movie 2012 just appeared in front of you while you were reading a blog post by James Randi. Come on, it’s hilarious!

And frankly, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.


I think we have much more important things to concern ourselves with than contextual ads on skeptic sites. These ads produce much needed revenue, and most of the time are only seen by skeptics who already know they are crap. Have a laugh at the irony, pocket the woo-woo’s money, and move on.

7 thoughts on “Yes, contextual advertising is full of woo-woo. Get over it already.

  1. furtim

    Well said!

    The other thing to consider is that some advertising plans — correct me if I’m wrong, I only tangentially rubbed up against Google ads at my last job — guarantee a certain rate of appearance or a certain number of appearances per billing cycle. Under these plans, every ad that appears on a skeptical site is an ad that doesn’t appear on some general purpose where the audience might be more receptive… Again, this is wasting the woos’ money for a benefit to the skeptical site hosting the ads.

  2. blogueroconnor

    Hi, I have mixed feeling about this. I do agree that in a practical term is like you say (is money to our pockets and no harm is made). But from a ethical perspective is not right. You are profiting from the same people you are supposed to fight. If a newspaper accepts ads from such scammers, you will think bad about that newspaper. So the same ethics should be expected from you, or even better since you are committed to fight them and you are not gullible because you are in better position to understand when there is a scam going on.
    For Spanish skeptic websites there is a shared list of frud sites to block in adsense, when I found the URL I could post it here if there is interest.

  3. wnightshade

    blogueroconnor, I think that is an unfair comparison. Newspapers vet their ads, and have a certain amount of control over what ads appear. Google ads do not allow that much control (as Tim explains above). It is much less of an ethical issue than a technical one. I think Tim’s take is a solid one – this is a small thing in the big picture, and we should be able to live with it.

  4. blogueroconnor

    wnightshade, I do agree there is a technical issue involved. As a seasoned webmaster I know about it. But from the perspective of a casual user who reads a skeptic site, it may looks hypocrite to criticize pseudoscience and profit from it at the same time.
    In our case ( we have a disclaimer next to the ads (Ads policy is called) where we explain situation to readers and ask them to submit fraudulent ads to include them in the ban list.

  5. Tim Farley Post author

    Having an ad policy that is displayed next to the ads is something I probably should have mentioned. That can help defuse anger. Thanks for pointing that out.

  6. fcain

    Thanks Tim, I appreciate the reasoned response to the situation. What you’ve described is essentially my position on the matter. Google Adsense is the only advertiser out there that will actually pay the bills, so I can pay the writers, server costs, etc. Without the money from Adsense, Universe Today would be a shadow of its current self. I’d layoff the writers, move the site to a $10/month host, and go get a real job.

    And don’t think that I haven’t tried to bring in real advertisers. I’ve started up advertising networks, cold-called every telescope manufacturer, and begged my readers to help find sponsors for Universe Today – and that was met with silence. I know that it’s just a matter of time before lots of advertising moves online, but until then what do people suggest we do?

    So for now, it’s Adsense. Big, bold Adsense ads that take up a tiny fraction of the site’s total real estate. Compare that to a newspaper or magazine and you’ll see that UT has less advertising.

    The big complaint, obviously, is that there are 2012 and woowoo ads selling all kinds of nutty theories. But those ads paid for a multi-part series of articles that debunked every aspect of the 2012 silliness. Those ads keep the BAUT forum going. And they’re not the only ads on the site, there are also ads for telescopes, trips to the Kennedy Space Center and other space-related stuff.

    So why don’t I filter out the woowoo ads? I tried that. Within a day or so, I filled up my filter list completely and it was just a fraction of the ads out there. And there’s no way I can see them all. And if you filter some, it just lets others float to the top.

    We’re at an uncomfortable time in the world economy, with massive advertising resources shifting from the old media publishers to the new online world. Universe Today and the other space media sites are perfectly positioned to reap the rewards when the shift is actually finished. And when it does, we’ll have lots of very appropriate advertisers, spending the kind of money required to keep these kinds of sites going. It’ll be awesome, and there’ll be ice cream for everyone.

    But until then, we have to do what we can to survive. I’m grateful that I can pay salaries to 6 full and part time writers and still feed my children. And the woowoos are contributing to that. I think it’s a hilarious transfer of wealth, honestly.

    Universe Today is financially stable and growing nicely. As it grows, I can bring on more writers and provide better coverage. The site is almost completely immune the current troubles in the world economy. (I’ve worked in my basement developing Universe Today in my spare time before and I can do it again)

    If you don’t like ads, I suggest you install Adblock for Firefox. Zip done, never see an ad again. And the when the future has arrived, I’ll let you know.

    But if you want to complain about Universe Today, I beg you to complain about the content, tone and coverage of the articles and our respect for science and skepticism. Don’t worry about the ads, they’ll get sorted out soon enough.

    Fraser Cain
    Universe Today

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