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Session-Based Clicks Under Fire in WSJ Report

Advertisers interviewed by the Wall Street Journal are complaining about Google’s practice of delivering ads within a user’s search session, but beside results unrelated to an advertiser’s purchased keywords. Google says it’s been returning AdWords in this way for years, in an effort to target users in the process of narrowing down their search for information or products.

“We think of the way people search as trying to complete a task,” said Jim Prosser, a Google spokesperson.

The way session ad targeting works, a user who searched for “cosmetic dentistry” at one point in a session could continue to be served ads targeted to these keywords, even when they’ve gone on to search for “limo services” or something unrelated. Google’s Prosser says the advertiser’s purchased keywords must be set to broad match and must be in a searcher’s “very recent search history…we’re not talking days or weeks.” Prosser also said the number of ads served in this way “represents a single digit percentage of impressions system-wide.”

The advertisers cited by the WSJ include medical professionals paying upwards of $5 a click, who said they’ve lost money — one told the Journal he’d lost $3000 in the past couple of years — when Google displayed their ads next to unrelated search results. The Journal report cited instances in which a Manhattan cosmetic dentist’s ads were delivered when users searched for “stomatologist school in arkansas,” “sharks of new york,” and “celebrity hairstyles 2008.”

Prosser said advertisers can avoid these juxtapositions by adding a plus sign to their broad match keywords, which will ensure that the keywords were in the search term that triggers their display. He also defended Google by saying the fact that users had clicked indicates they were interested in the advertiser’s ad content. “A user has to be interested in an ad, as it’s written, for them to click,” said Prosser. “Beyond the query itself, a click shows interest.”

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