When Google introduced Gmail seven years ago, it didnt copy Yahoo Mail or Microsofts Hotmail. Gmail was built for distraction-free speed. The ads were text-only, and so unobtrusive that you could forget they were even there.
In this respect, Gmail has been a retro service, resembling the text-only computing of ancient times, before mice and touch pads.
Google realized from the start that irrelevant ads would annoy its users. So it developed software that analyzed the words in an incoming message and then selected the seemingly most salient ads among those in its inventory.
Now, better ads are coming to Google, the company recently announced. But as has always been the case, ads in Gmail will remain fully automated no humans read your messages, the company says.
Seven years in, its amazing to me how crude the Gmail ad-matching system still is. This week, an e-mail from my daughters school about a coming Teacher Appreciation Week brought an ad inviting me to Become a Teacher, Earn a Masters. A different e-mail, which made no mention of medical matters but had the phrase no recurrence, was accompanied by an ad for patients who had had a mastectomy.
Gmail presents a single text ad when you look at an inbox view and havent selected a particular message. A recent sampling of ads included one inviting me to invest in oil stocks; a message from Rand Paul seeking my signature on a petition; and a plea from BP seeking to tell me about its restoration work in the Gulf of Mexico.
I have no idea how I was matched to any of those ads. Alex Gawley, Googles senior product manager overseeing Gmail, explained that in cases like these, the advertiser may be using keywords that are very broad.
Which means that, despite Googles intent, the ads can be matched to most any e-mail message, making the likelihood of the ad matching my particular interests very small.
Mr. Gawley said Gmails revamped ad-matching system, now in limited tests, analyzes context as well as the content of an individual message. It looks at what he calls signals in your inbox, like whether you open messages with particular keywords and dont open those with other keywords.
Given that advertisers pay Google only if a user takes the trouble to click on the ad, it might seem that the company has every reason to display more, not fewer, ads on the right-hand side accompanying individual e-mails. But Mr. Gawley says that Google has greatly reduced the number of ads it displays because it wants its users to develop confidence that the ads they see have been winnowed carefully, leaving only the most relevant.
Then Mr. Gawley revealed a surprise: Gmail will begin allowing advertisers to use images. For example, an e-mailed offer for a ski package showing a skier on the slopes could be accompanied by an ad on the right side of the screen, showing a competing offer, replete with another skier coming down another slope. Mr. Gawley said the image used in the ad would be static, not animated, and would be used only in cases where the e-mail message itself showed images.
Gmail has never permitted anything but text ads, so this will be a major change for its users. Mr. Gawley acknowledged this and emphasized that the company was moving slowly before it introduced images as an ad option. Even though weve seen positive results on the advertising side, we want to make sure that users are not alienated, he said. With this one, we want to be extra cautious.
Hotmail and Yahoo Mail have long used not only image ads but also animated ones. Last week on Hotmail, I saw two different versions of an ad titled Return to School
With a Grant. One displayed cartoon school buses going round and round a figure-eight track. The other showed a woman in a leotard, with a cap on her head and an inclination to jump up and down every few seconds, apparently ecstatic that she had just graduated.
A spokeswoman for Microsoft said Hotmail had recently reduced the number of image ads per page to one from two, as part of a consumer-first approach. She also said the company had eliminated text-only ads entirely from Hotmail in order to provide a cleaner user experience.
For me, though, a clean user experience is a text-only advertisement of just a few words it beats images or anything else. Googles text ads are the modern equivalent of tiny text ads that daily newspapers in the 19th century carried on their front pages. James D. Norris, an emeritus professor of history at Northern Illinois University, described those ads as saying nothing more than we have such-and-such goods in stock.
As a result of advances in rotary press technology in the late 19th century, the cost of printing illustrations fell and advertisements began to include images. This was more than a change in graphic design it was also a shift from a culture of production and savings to one of consumption, Mr. Norris said. Ads now were designed to induce want. Googles quiet text ads do not induce want they dont have the graphic palette and the room to do so. They can say only, We have such-and-such goods in stock. And thats all I really want to know.