THE BLOG
08/07/2014 05:08 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2014

Is Targeted Online Advertising Less Effective Than Believed?

I was shocked the other day to pull up a website and see my own mug staring back at me in an ad gracing the side of the page. Sure, targeted advertising has been making big waves lately, but seeing my own image in one was a first for me. What's the point? It's not as if seeing myself in an ad magically makes me want to grab my credit card and snatch up whatever it is my face is suddenly trying to sell me. Did I like the ad? No... just no.

Sophisticated programs now tap our every online movement then make an instant call about what ad we will see next. If I go online to buy a pair of shoes, I will suddenly see shoes everywhere I go. But, hey, I already bought the shoes I found in my search. I don't need to see more of the exact same shoes. So how effective is that targeted advertising when all is said and done? If ads are going to be present, I want to see something new that sparks my interest, not something that hunts me down and stalks me like an ex that keeps showing up like a bad penny.

Then there's the issue of true compatibility. These sophisticated algorithms think they have me wired because I searched for this or that online. But hey. I'm a writer. I do research. I look at a lot of stuff just once. It doesn't mean I want to buy it. And, writer or not, I'm sure there are a lot of reasons that people conduct searches just once, or just a few times, and yet have no interest whatsoever in purchasing whatever it was that they were searching for.

So does this type of advertising actually produce better results for advertisers? I have to wonder. Wouldn't it be better to at least suggest something new in those ads? To me, it's just missing the boat to see more and more ads for recliners when, as I surf the web, I'm already comfortably ensconced in the one I actually chose. Such in-your-face advertising just plain turns me off. But then, perhaps others might like it.

Most browsers now have some sort of opt-out option that can either stop or slow the roll of targeted ads, but many don't know that the option exists. And if they do know about it, they aren't sure how to effectively implement the opt-out. But that's not the issue anyway. The issue is "why do advertisers do it"? Well, money talks, and someone, somewhere, did studies and discovered that an advertiser might elevate their click-through rate on any given ad by a percentage point or two by being specific about the offer. That may or may not work for all advertisers, but will that approach have staying power if a potential buyer's eyes glaze over and the ads are routinely ignored?

Here's what happened when I went onto weather.com to check the forecast for another California sunny, summer day.

2014-08-07-TargetedAdsWeather.jpg

As you can see, it's going to be a mild 89 degrees with no chance of rain, and oh, Amazon has a book suggestion for me. Great! I love Amazon, and I love books. But wait. I wrote that book they are trying to sell me, and I'm pretty sure I won't be hopping over to Amazon to add another one to my library. So isn't that a wasted opportunity for Amazon to sell me something that I might not have seen before?

I won't lie. I wouldn't mind if all people were seeing my books in their own personalized ads, but that's the rub. Unless you actually searched for my books in the first place, you won't likely see them advertised on whatever page your web search happens to drop you. To see something new you have to be psychic and search for it first. Does that make sense? Perhaps the key to targeted advertising is to not take search results so literally. The focus is way too specific.

Wouldn't it be better if the "target" was much broader? A search for shoes could still return ads for shoes, but not the very ones you searched for, bought, and now have on your feet.

I don't know. Maybe it's just me. But I find this whole targeted advertising venture to be really annoying, and for me as a shopper, I find it completely ineffective.

I really think advertisers could do better. And I wish they would. Maybe hitting the bulls-eye isn't the goal after all. Maybe, just maybe, this is the one instance where simply grazing a moving target is the true win.