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Gmail ads – relevant text advertisements and your privacy

Gmail ads - relevant text advertisements and your privacy

Gmail’s launch on the 1st of April 2004 was greeted with much enthusiasm by the web community. The email account from Google with 1GB storage space that could only be acquired through special invitations from existing users had everyone clamouring for it.

However, there was one issue that raked up a storm – the advertisements on the email account. Gmail ads, you see, were relevant text ads; which means, the ads you get to see in your account were related to the email message contents. For instance, if you were viewing an email from a friend describing a movie, you’ll probably get to see ads from online ticket stores, DVD rental web site or something directly or indirectly related to the movie.

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The only way this could be done was by reading the email contents and that was what “annoyed” many. Why? Because it was a breach of privacy!

In my opinion, the entire hullabaloo was humbug. All online webmail services including popular ones like Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail scanned each email message and any attached files for viruses, worms, spam and phishing attack markers. If such kind of checking was considered good, why were relevant Gmail ads considered bad? Also, advertisements shown on other email services would definitely be targeted – based on your geographic location – so your computer was sharing information with the service any way.

Relevant text ads are better than flashy images and banners

I’m sure most of us agree that unobtrusive text advertisements are better than distracting and bothersome image and flash banner ads, right? Don’t we detest the “click the monkey” or “throw a shot” animated flash ads that loop till infinity? And most of these banner ads would not interest you in the least bit.

Taking the above example forward – an email describing a movie that you received from your friend – wouldn’t you be interested in watching it too (assuming it was a favourable review)? A relevant ticket sales or a DVD rental ad will only help you – take you nearer to your goal of getting to watch the movie.

And this was the message Google was trying to push across. In fact, from the company’s point of view, relevant text ads are better because they elicit your interest. Furthermore, over the years, web users have developed a kind of banner blindness – we tend to ignore certain areas of a web page which we think are likely to show ads and also pay no heed to page elements that look like ads. Don’t believe me? Check out usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s article on fancy formatting on web pages which is like an extreme form of banner blindness.

By the way, the email contents on Gmail are “read” by programs and not humans and this is similar to the automated scanning of messages and their contents for viruses, worms, spam and phishing markers. To put your fears to rest, I suggest you read more about Gmail privacy.

Where are the Gmail ads and how does Google do it?

At the time of writing, Gmail ads are displayed at two places – check the image below – at the very top and on the right.

Gmail ads displayed at two places - top and right

Google serves Gmail ads via its advertising program also known as Google AdWords (for advertisers). The email contents are read and relevant text ads are displayed in a fraction of a second using something similar to the search technology Google is so well known for.

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