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
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!”
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.
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.