Thursday, November 3, 2011

Google's disappointing lack of mobile ad innovation

About a month ago I was fortunate enough to be sponsored by the company I work at to visit the GITEX 2011 tech exhibition in Dubai. While there I took the time to find out what talks and panel discussions were on and available for pass holders to attend free. On the side of mobile, apps and content world there were quite a few interesting looking discussions and daily addresses (most of which turned out to be duds) of which the talk titled " Daily Address: Mobile Marketing; The New Frontier - Mohamad Mourad, Regional Manager, Google MEA" caught my eye. The talk and the panel debate regarding targeted ads turned out to be a major disappointment for me in the end and I still can't believe I ran into a lack of innovation of this nature.

What the Google guy spoke of

As a member of the audience rightly commented, Mourad's talk on how advantageous mobile advertising is to companies was basic at best. The talk seemed better structured for a set of individuals who were absolutely new to the world of mobile advertising and I wouldn't be surprised in fact if the man had just taken a presentation he had already delivered countless number of times before to various audiences and attempted to deliver the same thing to us. Leaving the issue of being basic aside what was more interesting were the points he decided to focus on.

The first point he went harping on was the opportunity for advertisers and developers alike to use mobile advertising as a means of getting exposure and generating income respectively. His chosen example of Angry Birds wasn't one I would have chosen as it is definitely an edge case and doesn't apply to everyone. More on why that's important later. The second point he chose to go on about was the various types of rich media ads that mobile advertising could support thus leading to (apparently) better engagement with consumers and "increased brand awareness". Oh the agony of having to sit through a cannon ball of buzz words. A lot of buzz words that don't seem to ever touch upon the real issue of mobile advertising.

My question is...

During the Q&A session immediately after the talk I asked Mourad what Google's plans might be to improve ad relevancy. Rich media and various methods of displaying ads were all good but no one would ever take ads seriously as long as their relevancy remained below the level of obsolete. His answer came as quite a surprise to me as he looked me in the eye and brushed my question off saying "We don't see this as an issue and Google has no plans of looking into this in the near future". Come again? Google, the company that makes the biggest bucks via its ad networks doesn't care for ad relevancy on the mobile platform? I wondered if he even really represented Google. Regardless, what he said did make me realise that even if he was wrong about the fact that Google isn't looking into this the fact would remain that Google has not shown any signs of looking into it up to today.

The strange thing is, even during the panel debate that followed Mourad's talk, everyone spoke of geo targeting and rich media ads. But when I asked them the same question, stating that contextual relevancy was more important before going for geo targeting they were all happy to agree with my observation but again downplayed the importance of relevancy. This was after I said that when I use a mind mapping tool I still get ads for horoscopes when I don't even believe in them. It was as if relevancy was just one of those issues opened up on a bug tracker destined to never be looked into with more than a passing interest.

But relevancy matters!

Remember what the Google guy said about benefits for Advertisers and for Developers? Exposure and revenue right? Unfortunately, hours and days of exposure through a few apps are never a guarantee for either one of those when relevancy is nil. For example, when I was using my mind mapping tool to create an interview question set for a daily deals panel discussion, there were a lot of key words in there that could have been used to serve me up interesting ads. Unfortunately Google still managed to get it wrong and deliver the famous horoscope advertisement which led me to switching off my data connection to ensure I wouldn't see the ads for a while. When this kind of advertising happens one has to question, is the advertiser getting their money's worth? If ads are served up in a manner that is this dumb then what exactly is the advertiser bidding for? If I advertise with Google am I really bidding against a horoscope website? Even if what I want to bid for has nothing related whatsoever to horoscopes? Does that also mean that Google is squandering valuable opportunity after opportunity to serve up a relevant ad?

Then there's the problem for the developer too. Developers who use an ad supported model depend on those advertisements for their revenue. Unfortunately since most companies seem to be focused on the delivery mechanism of the ads rather than the relevancy the resulting experience from the apps can be frustratingly ugly. And it isn't just the the terrible experience of big pictures showing up after every other screen or advertisements masquerading as notifications randomly during the day. The problem has a much more severe impact on the entire system when these advertisements have no relevance.

The effect of non/poorly targeted ads

Remember the old days of advertising via the internet? The flashy banners desperately attempting to get your attention as the 1000th visitor to the site? Things have come a long way since then where I actually welcome ads, giving them my attention occasionally to see if there's anything I like. My clicks on ads have increased with the increase of their relevancy but somewhere at the back of my head I'm always questioning whether or not these ads are safe. And that is the unfortunate effect of the internet having grown up with the virus/malware ridden ads plastered around websites. And if mobile ads continue the way they are going, people are very soon going to start regarding them as just spam. And when this happens, no amount of relevancy will ever sort the issues out completely. Unfortunately mobile ad networks don't seem to be taking this seriously.

Google's crime in not creating targeted ads

Google is by no means new to the targeting game. For me it feels like Google invented the targeted ad concept. (Note that I said feels like). Their experience in using text on the web along with all their other knowledge of the user gives an experience in ads which if you choose to look at today, is quite good. This kind of targeting isn't easy though and the technology behind it has been put through a constant process of refinement and evolution. Given that, it might be understandable for companies new to the mobile advertising game to choose to try and trump other ad networks simply by making their ads richer and more obvious and ultimately more annoying. Google however, is left with no excuse as to why they continue to ignore the concept of targeted ads. All they require is to create the means for an ad developer to pass relevant information from within an app to their servers (since apps cannot be crawled for information like a traditional web page). The heavy weight work of actually converting that data into a meaningful ad is already built and Google has to simply leverage it to create what will be a fulfilling experience not just for the user but also for the developer AND the customers who choose to advertise with them.


The world continues to turn and others have woken up to this gaping hole in Google's strategy in the mobile ad space. Companies like Addictive Mobility have taken up the challenge of providing app developers with a method to throw data from within the app into their SDK which then funnels the data into Addictive Mobility's servers before churning out ads relevant to the current context within the app. I was in fact lucky enough to snag an interview with the CTO and co founder of Addictive Mobility where I spoke about the technology behind their product and frankly speaking, it's mind blowing. Mind you, this may not be a company that you've heard much about but you should check their clients out and realise that they simply believe in more action and less talk.

The point I'm going to make here is, Google and most other mobile ad networks are sitting back on their laurels expecting the money to roll in while they let the system deteriorate. It's disappointing and as an aspiring developer I feel insulted that Google doesn't given enough attention towards solving the obvious problems that exist in their mobile ad network. The mobile ad network that they've made so easy to use with Android. The OS they are caretakers of. Pretty soon one of two things will happen. Either the users of apps will grow numb to the ads invading their phone screens as web users have become numb to the banner ads on the sides of the web pages, OR, companies like Addictive Mobility are going to catch up and deal a death blow to Google. By which time Google might be able to only play catch up while the journalists write... "too little.. too late".

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My full interview with Dilshan can be found here

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