The Hamilton Spectator
Monday, October 6, 1997

Beware of being caught in the Web advertising trap

by Mark McNeil, mmcneil@southam.ca

Have you noticed when you search the World Wide Web, that advertising banners suddenly appear that are remarkably similar to your search terms.

You type the word, automobile, in your favourite search engine and along with your list of hits, you receive a multi-coloured, click-through ad for Toyota at the top of the screen.

Type the word, travel, and there might be a button for Delta Airlines.

It's not a coincidence. Search engines are leasing words to advertisers.

Every time someone types the word, the company's banner ad appears.

It's one of the latest attempts to raise revenue on the net, or at least partly underwrite the costs of running search engines.

As McMaster University computer science professor David Jones says, "the search engines are acting as a go-between, linking parties who have a common interest -- a consumer and a retailer."

Search engines, of which there are dozens -- Altavista, Lycos, and Yahoo are among the most commonly used -- offer themselves for free.

So it's hard to complain about a company trying to recoup its costs through advertising.

If you don't like ads, don't use the free service.

The search engines have found other ways to make money as well. Many are being sold for intranet use.

Search Tools

Companies that have internal, Internet-like network systems are using search engines as a way to find documents.

AltaVista is also available as a search tool for your home computer.

You can use it to search your computer, the same way the search engine looks through the Net.

It's almost as if the Internet was used as a beta testing ground for the software to be later sold.

But more interestingly, these commercial possibilities may represent a breakthrough in the quest to finance undertakings on the Net.

Banner ads are cropping up on web sites everywhere.

And with their appearance on search engine pages -- at least -- they are targeting advertising in a way that was never before possible.

The difficulty for proponents is convincing more corporate advertisers that banner ads on the Web are worth the money and effort.

There has been a lot of skepticism about the ads.

Some people believe Internet users hate them and will even be angered by what they perceive as a commercialization of their cyber-playground.

And many corporate execs have difficulty imagining the possibilities of a medium they have little experience with.

But more recently, there have been indications banner ads are an effective way to get a message across. And the tide may be changing.

A major study by market researchers Millward Brown International in late 1996 found that ads were effective in getting across brand recognition.

Effective Media

Among its findings, the survey found that 12 out of 100 people were likely to recall seeing a Web ad after viewing it just once, compared to only 10 people who were likely to remember a television commercial after one viewing.

But people are suspicious of the study because it was financed by Hotwired, a kind of online magazine that has a vested interest in proving that banner ads are useful.

Another consideration for people using the Web is sorting out where content ends and advertising begins.

But Jones, who is also president of Electronic Frontier Canada, an organization that is trying to protect human rights and freedoms as new computing, communications, and information technology is introduced, says, "I think people are skeptical enough of information on the Internet."

"There is no editor or quality control. They know it is buyer beware."

And he believes the marketplace will dictate the amount and visibility of ads on the Net.

The concern for him is when activities by users of the Internet are monitored for commercial or marketing purposes.

"When you sit down at a computer, you don't realize that you can be monitored or tracked."

One way to do this is through so-called cookies which are harmless text files dumped onto your computer from Web sites.

They can contain information about your Web activities and the information can be retrieved by the computer controlling the Web site you are visiting.

Copyright © 1997 by Southam News. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.