Google Extends Ad Targeting Based on Browsing History. Good or Bad?

By: Chris Crum - June 25, 2011

Remember Google’s interest-based advertising? You know, where they serve you ads based on your browsing history, and allow advertisers to behaviorally target users? It has now rolled out on a mass scale after a two-year beta run. All advertisers can now utilize this targeting.

What do you think about Interest-based advertising? Let us know in the comments.

The way Google’s Interest-based advertising works is that sites that join the Google Display Network (which includes Google’s Display partners, YouTube, and specific Google properties that display Adwords ads), and serve ads to users based on browsing history. Google’s Display Network and Search Network are separate, and combine to make up the entire Google Network, but advertisers have the option of running their ads on the Google Network.

On the Inside AdWords blog, Google Display Network Product Manager Jon Krafcik writes:

We’ve been slowly expanding the availability of this feature, and as of today, interest categories are now available to all AdWords advertisers. It works like this: our system looks at the types of pages a user visits, taking into account how recently and frequently those pages have been visited, and then associates their browser with relevant interest categories. Using these categories, you can show ads to the people most likely to purchase your products or services, and you can reach them across all types of sites in the Google Display Network in addition to contextually relevant sites.

With over 1,000 interest categories from ecotourism to mobile phones, we’re confident you’ll find a category that fits your business. And with over 500 million users interested in these categories who visit the Display Network every day, you’ll be able to reach a huge number of potential customers. You pay only for clicks or impressions at auction prices, as always. Our beta advertisers have used interest categories to successfully meet all kinds of goals, from an advertiser increasing brand lift by 40% to a shoe retailer driving 400% more conversions at a lower advertising cost per sale.

Google claims that the Display Network reaches 70% of unique Internet users around the world. “The Display Network has the advantage of reaching potential customers at different points of the buying cycle,” Google says. “Not every potential customer is focused on conducting a search. Not every visitor is ready to buy at a given moment. The advertiser’s challenge is to capture their attention at the right time. For example, a user might begin a search for digital cameras with just an interest in reading reviews. While reading a review, though, that user might note the ads of online retailers or click on the ads themselves. With search-only advertising, this customer would have been missed.”

The addition of interest-based advertising should theoretically help the advertiser in reaching the customer at the right time.


Here’s a video Google put out about privacy as it relates to interest-based advertising, back in ’09:

Google users can edit the categories of ads they wish to be shown. I’m not sure the average user will know to do this or even think about it, but Google has a page where you can go and adjust this, or even opt-out entirely. Right now, Google has me set up to view ads from the following categories: celebrities and entertainment news, online video, advertising and marketing, Internet software, Mac OS, search engines, SEO and marketing, business news, politics, and social networks.

While these categories, I would imagine are relevant enough to me, I would hardly say they’re representative of my interests at large or even my web use at large. Google will let us add (or remove) categories, as we like, however. You can add sub-categories from Arts & Entertainment, Autos & Vehicles, Beauty & Fitness, Books & Literature, Business & Industrial, Computers & Electronics, Finance, Food & Drink, Games, Hobbies & Leisure, Home & Garden, Internet & Telecom, Jobs & Education, Law & Government, News, Online Communities, People & Society, Pets & Animals, Real Estate, Reference, Science, Shopping, Sports, Travel, World Localities, and Demographics.

The interests are associated with the advertising cookie that’s stored in your web browser. When you opt out, Google disables your cookie and no longer associates interest and demographic categories with your browser. Your ads are likely to be less relevant as a result. Here’s another privacy video from Google talking specifically about cookies:

On the Ads Preferences page, Google says, “Google is a participating member of the Network Advertising Initiative and follows the industry privacy standards for online advertising. You can opt out of this cookie, as well as other companies’ cookies used for interest-based ads, by visiting the choices page. If you want to persist your opt-out of interest-based ads from all NAI member companies, you can install the Keep My Opt-Outs plugin.”

The “Keep my opt-outs” plugin is essentially a “Do Not Track” mechanism that lets users opt out from receiving personalized ads as they browse the web. More on this here.


As Facebook becomes an increasingly attractive alternative for online ad spending, Google is smart to ramp up its targeting abilities, although I’m not sure they match the targeting power of Facebook’s. Google’s is much more about timing, which can certainly be effective, but in reality can be hit or miss. Facebook has the advantage of all its users “likes” which can really be far more representative of their “interests” than simply listing somewhat broad categories in their Google settings.

For example, with Facebook Ads, I can create an ad that targets 21-year-old males who live in Lexington, KY, and Like the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the band “My Morning Jacket,” and drink “Pabst Blue Ribbon”. That can be pretty powerful. There’s a reason these ads are gaining popularity, particularly among local businesses. I report from MerchantCircle this month found that 22% of local merchants have used Facebook Ads, and that two-thirds of them would use them again.

Facebook and Google are becoming competitors in more ways than one, but advertising is obviously a key area, as it’s the real money maker for both companies. This also comes at a time as Google’s future in advertising is uncertain. The company is facing multiple antitrust ordeals, including a potentially lengthy investigation from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and questioning from the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice is looking into the company’s proposed acquisition of ad optimization firm AdMeld.

The FTC is said to be sending out requests for information from companies that deal with Google, and it will be very interesting to see which companies these include. Google will argue things like “the competition is a click away,” and probably that it’s main competitor Bing (using Microsoft AdCenter, which is also powering Yahoo search advertising) continues to gain market share from month to month. In online advertising alone, Google may also point to an increasingly popular Facebook advertising platform, as Facebook is clearly a force to be reckoned with on the web with its nearly 700 million registered users (yes, the number is disputed, but there’s not denying that Facebook is an enormous force).

Is interest-based advertising good for the web? Tell us what you think.

Chris Crum

About the Author

Chris CrumChris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.

View all posts by Chris Crum
  • Tom Roberts

    Trying to keep up with Facebook’s demographic targeting. Too little… too late!

  • Adsense Publisher

    Actually for most websites interest based advertising is a bust. On top of that many Adsense publishers are wondering why the option to turn off interest based advertising doesn’t seem to work. I’m using the new Adsense beta interface and it keeps on telling me that interest based ads are showing up eventhough I’ve disabled this as an option. Interest based ads may pay more, but the lack in performance of these ads units does not make up for the higher bid prices these ads generate. It didn’t seem much like a beta test if there was no opting in, and the opt out feature seems to be nothing more than a checkbox that does nothing to shut off those kinds of ads. It’s just more of Google saying we want to give you options, but when we think we know better we’ll take away your options but leave a little check box to make you still think you have options. Google is becoming more like the Matrix movies where the illusion is choice.

    • 67

      There is a help file on google that explains that behavioral targeting part of IBAs can’t be disabled. You are disabling something else when you disable IBAs.

      • AL

        So Adsense publishers have no way to turn this off on their own websites?

        If my website is highly targeted to a specific niche and Google shows ads for something completely different, I would think that the CTRs would decrease. This would not just hurt me, but the advertisers as well.

        I think publishers should be able to turn it off on their own sites.


        • 67

          No, there is no way to turn it off. Some people say they have evidence of IBAs being turned off as they are seeing more targeted ads but reality is most visitors are seeing totally different ads.

          Search the Adsense help files for Interest Based Ads. I believe the last sentence says behavioral targeting can’t be turned off. Been awhile since I read it.

        • 67
          • Adsense Publisher

            I see what you’re saying, if they went to somebody’s website and then visited your site, they might see an ad for that previous website simply because they visited it before, not because Google thinks they may be interested in it. It’s a little deceptive, but better than what I thought was going on.

  • Jon

    I’ve been noticing this more and more over the course of the last year, where something I browsed yesterday will suddenly be in a google ad on another site. I’m undecided as to whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I do think it’s clever though. In conjunction with the overall filtering of Google searches that is happening, I think this has potential to be too limiting.

  • jose reis

    Troca de azulejos com piscina cheia e vazamentos

    • T

      english please

    • T

      i think your brain leaks

  • anand kumar

    Google is trying to improve adwords, But normally all the users of google are not Technically sound , and they wont take this options for sure. Really its not gong to help google or google users. If google is using cookies , browsing history really its bad.

  • Greg Lightning

    I suppose its the logical smart way to go that has merit..Has it made me purchase more from them ads ? Not really. I really dont buy a lot online so its really not a fair assessment from me. If I want something I look it up in a research approach and I really don’t click side ads..But thats me.

  • Powerpets

    From my experience, it’s pretty bad for advertisers. A week ago I went to a certain niche website (steel outbuildings), since then, everywhere I go, I see the ads for that site which I’ve already been to and know about.
    It may be good for highly competitive sites where there’s a lot of bidding on a select few keywords, but from what I see, niche sites are going to be flushing a lot of money down the drain.
    Further that, our sites are targeting social game players and animal shelters/rescues. Ads that are showing up now are completely unrelated to this.
    Google also seems to think every person has their own computer. Imagine all the families who only have one or two computers. Husband wants to surprise wife with a nice necklace, and for the next two weeks, whenever the wife is on the computer all she sees is ads for a certain jewelry store.
    On the bright side, our newest venture is closing in on the 25K monthly uniques that some of the better advertising companies require, so we’ll be able to replace the adsense ads soon.

    • michael

      I agree – key words aren’t selected properly and then ads are wasted for non relevant content.

    • Gary

      “On the bright side, our newest venture is closing in on the 25K monthly uniques that some of the better advertising companies require,”

      Could you share the name of these better companies, I have over 25k uniques and want to try something different.

  • Robert McGuire

    I, as well as many friends and neighbors, will not patronize any person, place or thing that shoves ads in our face as we browse the web.

    • Banatu

      Exactly. I find it offensive to the point that I will go out of my way to avoid places after I have to see their stupid ads all day, every day, for weeks, at work and play on my computer. Including the root of the problem, google itself.

      For me, advertising was infinitely more effective when it was random, as I would sometimes actually encounter products I was unfamiliar with and therefore mildly curious about. That’s the only time I ever clicked on ads.

  • jose reis

    trocamos azulejos com piscina cheia

  • Debbie

    My concern as a business owner is that when someone searches for and example “home based business” the top three ads have nothing to do with that search. What does the Bank of Montreal have to do with that search? Nothing, yet to place a bonafied ad there costs a lot of money. Google needs to perhaps look at ways for the smaller businesses to get the same type of exposure as the large corporations but on a more realistic budget.I also agree with other posters in this forum that ads should not be targeted to my web browsing. This offends a lot of potential clients. I myself, as a user of adwords get annoyed when ads that have nothing to do with what I’m looking for continue to pop up on every page I browse. Perhaps when other members of my household browsed the web they choose different topics then I.

    • Richard Hance

      Try “home based business” as a search string on Norele. See the difference what a search engine that is pure to helping access information returns.

  • Sharon Hays

    I like the idea, but when I tried to place a google ad, the customer service was lousy and no one ever returned messagees so I finally gave up on it. I used Yahoo quite easily and successfully. What have you done different in the communications department as far as helping customers to place and answer questions?

  • ITS

    The thing that doesn’t make sense about these ad types is that in practice google reads the cookies of sites a surfer has already visited so how does paying to serve another ad drive traffic?
    I can see if you are trying to build name recognition that this would be effective, but if you want qualified visitor traffic it is counter-productive.

    We have paid for these ad types in places like Jango (they use this extensively) and actually found a DECREASE in click through (and subsequently a decreased ROI on our ad dollars).
    As mentioned above our assessment of this is that you are serving the ad after the fact which doesn’t help.

  • Sharon Hays

    I think I actually got a good response from Facebook blurp ads, better than most as far as book promotions.

  • michael

    I don’t think it is a good idea except in one way – building customer loyalty. I’d like it if these interest based ads were to actually give me some sort of value – coupon, sale items, free shipping, etc. since it already knows that I am either a customer or frequent customer. If it is just something I have browsed seeing the same ad for something I did not buy gets annoying. It’s like having ads targeted based upon what google searches in my gmail account – intrusive and uninteresting.

  • sean

    When I started my website, I was using adwords, and google analytics. I had $50 credit with adwords, so I tried it. After a week, I had used $40 in adwords credits, and adwords was showing clicks on my site, which google analytics didn’t. After doing research, I found out that google analytics is one of the methods that google uses to gather browsing history, and that adwords will charge you for incomplete clicks. I gave up on adwords, and switched my attention over to seo, and was able to make my site #2 search result for the keywords I wanted, without having to pay a dime.

    I also have been getting annoyed with all of the ads on my computer, so I use firefox with noscript installed, so I can select which sites to allow scipts from, and I now see very few ads. I also disabled third party cookies, so that less information will be gathered on my browsing.

  • jan

    I think that the only one benefitting is Google. Not the advertiser, not the publisher.
    And advertisers with lots of money to spend, their adds will be shown everywhere.

  • Destry

    Everything I browse is anti terrorist… I mean government…. so they can let that get ranked higher! Alex Jones rulez!

  • vepzone

    If I look ok cars, but after looking for houses, bad follow suggestions of cars. Greetings.

  • T West

    The problem with browsing-based advertising is that my competition’s ads always show up on my pages, and therefore my ads show up on their pages. I’m not only sick of seeing my competition’s ads, but i fear they may be clicking my ads repeatedly in order to cause me to use my budget up faster!

  • Everett Harriman

    I don’t like it – FOR PERSONAL REASONS!

  • SEO Ireland

    Good move by Google – it should allow advertising to be much more focused and relevant.

    @Robert – Google AdWords has, AFAIK, had demographic bidding longer than Facebook has had PPC….!

  • Joe H

    This just more spam for most users search engines and social sites have been trying for years to spoon feed to you what you see, most users see all this as spam, this is the very reason i use my popup blocker spam button and the no button so much.

  • http://www.CaptainCyberzone.Com CaptainCyberzone

    Wasn’t it the Devil that said, “Do No Evil” or was that Karl Marx?!

  • Web Design San Luis Obispo

    Google now disgusts us! It hurts.

  • DHaas

    Plain and simple the reason it’s not providing the success it had hoped to produce is based on indirect relevance.

    Here’s what that’s about. If my hobby is coin collecting and I spend considerable time with a second open window about coin collecting I’m appearing to be best targeted by ads from gold and silver companies (who I’m not interested in anyhow). When I’m online looking for help writing my resume, I’m looking at some of the better sites like The people that want to help me with a good, quality service don’t have the opportunity to offer or sell anything to me. At that moment I need help with my resume. I’m on a resume site because that is what I need. Relevant ad results to the content I’m currently reading HELPS me, and can make my time spent more productive. Going to eleven different sites and seeing the same types of ad about coins and gold are absolutely useless to me. Worse yet for the advertisers out there that offer a good resume service – they can’t reach me any more. I won’t find them, they won’t sell to me and I won’t benefit from their service. We’re (both me and the would-be advertiser) both losing out.

  • Aviran

    Sure is bad, stop getting into my life Google!

  • Andrew Carvin

    Meh. I don’t mind Ad Targeting because it might bring to light things I did not know exist, but as far as buying goes I’m still going to do my research before making purchases. I’m also not going to buy anything I don’t need/want.

    So yeah, I get shown an ad for MP3 players because I was doodling about looking at what’s available. That’s nice, but it’s not going to make me any more likely to buy the Mp3 player I’m being shown. Waste of money for the advertiser.

  • Vic

    I don’t see any ads on the web, not even on youtube videos since I installed Adblock. What an amazing Firefox addon. If you don’t have it installed you should consider it installing it. You can disable it on any site quickly with 2 clicks.

  • Chris

    This is actually a good news for online marketer and SEO’s practitioner
    for this keywords will not be the only way to land on your Ads but also browsing history which the user or buyer browse or have search

  • Fouad Oodian

    Every innovation brings changes and fresh ideas.

  • Layllah

    The more they target the less I’ll buy! Hell I’m making my own mayo just so i don’t have to buy that 3 ingredient crap from some mega corp that pays farmers three cents a piece for eggs I pay $2.00 a dozen for! I’d rather see the little guy make enough money to pay his mortgage than watch corporate executives flying to vegas on a Gulfstream

  • Shristy

    Nothing wrong with it, as far as visitors / web surfers are concerned, it is good as well as bad, good because you keep getting offers for what you searched earlier, bad because you looked up at google for ‘cheap air tickets’ and then you are viewing a website article on ‘hiring a plumber’ but you will still end up getting ads on ‘cheap air tickets’ very annoying for me at least.

    As a webmaster who displays adsense ads, you might get clicks for penny or your planning to target high profile keywords may not work at all as the ads will be driven by user interests and not your interest, a bad business proposition to start with.

  •,au Big Ears

    I believe this type of advertising is good for some businesses in particularly those with the budget to spend on branding, which is a very long and expensive ordeal. Where it wont work is for an example, if I owned a car sales yard why would I want to advertise to someone who was searching for a car for sale 6 months ago? Average turnover of a car is 3 to 5 years. Now, if I was a company that wanted to sell spare parts I would want to advertise to someone who searched for a used car for sale 6 months or more ago as very likely they will need spare parts by this time.

    Personally I doubt whether I would utilise this feature as something like this would really blow my budget out. But the branding and awareness would be brilliant for a site like

    The privacy issue is scary and imagine if someone like Joseph Goebbels ran Google. Facebook is different because people give them the information but Google just takes it.

    • Adsense Publisher

      Have you read up on Facebook’s like button? How about how you think you’re browsing anonymously but when you see a like button your traffic is recorded via a cookie set by the button. So then when you log into your Facebook account the cookie is accessed again and then Facebook knows of the sites you visited that had a like button on it, even if you never clicked on the button on that site/page. The more that facebook gets people to install the like button on their pages, the more that Facebook knows of what you are doing. At lest with Google Analytics it’s because the website owner wants to see what you are doing on his or her site, and they can opt to never share that information with Google or anybody else, or they can opt to share it anonymously.

  • Michael Wilson

    I find it the most complicated, hard to understand, most time consuming (sometimes wasted) part of having an online store. About the time you begin to understand anything, they (Google in particular) completely change the game. Those with unlimited funds, and can afford to have 1 or more persons devoted full time are the ones that win. The rest of us that have to also run the buisness, have to dedicate endless hours when available to research & guess what works & what doesn’t.

  • Lewis

    This is bad for both the advertiser and the consumer – my opinion. A brief search that is subsequently satisfied remains the source of constant ads that are no longer relevant. This then leads to curiosity clicks with low conversion rates.

  • Karen

    I really don’t care for it myself but I can see how it may be helpful for companies with a large budget.

  • Bogdan

    Sall cum pot face sa am si eu vizite dupa google am acest site de 7 luni si nici in momentu de fata nu imi vin vizite dupa google ,. va multumesc anticipat

    • Ioana

      Ai greşit site-ul, pe aici se vorbeşte engleză. Găseşti informaţii pe, în colecţia mea de resurse utile pentru SEO, arhitectura informaţiei, content strategy şi user experience. Vizite n-au cum să-ţi vină de pe Google dacă site-ul nu e optimizat.

  • Kat

    poor advertisers- their ads are being mis-directed- I often research Muslim terrorism and so I get ads for dating sites for Muslims!! as if-I am a photographer and often look at my clients pages, search for copyright vilations etc- now I get a particualr clients ads almost exclusively- I suppose Google has no idea I don’t need those products as I get them free as perk- How many other advertisers are not showing up on my page to sell me things I might want? – The computer is very bad at determining how your search habits affect your shopping. On Facebook, b/c my interests say photos, I get photo ads from my competitors as if I might want their services too. I searched for a certain model camera for someone else- now ads for that model show up, yet it is not a product I need or want.

  • hema

    movis mb3

  • Gabrielle

    Neither, more of the game. As a consumer, STOP IT! I’m no more interested in Google’s ad targeting than I am with Facebook’s useless ads. As a marketer helping businesses grow through online marketing and advertising it is completely different. But like anything you pick and choose, and test, test, test.

  • Michael

    Google tool bar disabled as well as startup on windows load/ Firewall blocks it from communicating with the outside. browser cache/cookies/history constantly cleaned and even change the city i reside in when i do use Google search. Why do I have Google tool bar on my Browser? There is a time and a place I choose to use it. Custom search is an invasion of privacy. ,,!,, the engines that use it 😉

  • Cathy | postcard printing

    Great post! Very appreciated, thank you so much.

  • John

    I believe it is yet another conflict with privacy. Why should anyone especially google analyse every move and the trying to stuff you Ads which might they fee might interests you!
    There will have to be soon something done about this cookies privacy as every single website is collection so much information about you and they can store pretty much anything in cookies. The only way is to delete them on regular basis.
    I think people underestimate the ammount of info Google collects from every internet user and possibilities of things to do with such information!

  • Michele L

    Who cares anyway. I ignore the google ads. Even when I enter a query and my desired site comes up, but my choices for click thru are a google paid ad, or an organic link, I always choose the organic link to the site. Why give more money to google. And those large display ads with pictures of greasy food?!?!? Yeah that’s attractive. I hate internet advertising.

  • Michael

    I recently closed my facebook account because of privacy concerns and have just changed my default search engine to

  • michele

    Every man may have a problem about virility.
    therefore I hope you surf my website. To fix all of them before its too late!

  • Chas

    @Michael; yeah, put your trust in MicroSoft- I’m sure they don’t have a clue about where you have surfed. It is both good and bad- you could change your search habits often and see how well the Cat keeps an eye on the Mouse.


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  • Lauren

    It’s good and can be bad… wonder what else they are able to find and do.

  • iTechWhiz – Technology Blog

    Hi Chris, thanks you for your analysis.
    But with the help of Keywords, Search History, AdMeld and now Google+, I guess Google is already preparing its horses to go neck to neck in competition with Facebook.
    And with both of these technology gaints (currently ranked #1 and #2 websites of the internet) increasingly becoming aggressive towards each other for a cut throat competition (in form of hiring ex employees, insiders, hackers, bloggers, lobbists and lawyers against each other) the future of whole online advertisement, which is the worlds largest advertisement media now, is uncertain.

  • Rathnashikamani

    Very useful and analysis.

    Thanks for such a great information.

  • Cork Online Marketer

    Everything has to be paid now, most of the original sites such as google, fb had plenty of free ways to promote, but it was inevitable the way things have gone.

  • bryan flake

    I have noticed this in my own searching habits and such. I will be on my PC here at home and I get adds on the sides and top of the page based off of what pages I visit out of leisure. When I am at work, I get different ads based off of pages I need to visit for work. Ad targeting based off of search history seems like an incredibly smart and economical business practice. I am interested to hear the downsides? Anyone?