Google, Facebook, And The Holy Grail Of Ads That Work

by: Dana Blankenhorn

Take a look at the side of the page here, and look at the ads. That's what you see: ads. At Seeking Alpha, these ads are mostly about financial services. That's called extrinsic targeting. It's targeting of ads based on content, but it's as old as newspapering itself.

Now go on Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), enter a search, and look at the ads. Again, they're just ads. Same with Facebook (NASDAQ:FB). Same with everyone.

For 15 years now, companies like Google and Facebook have been trying to use data so that ads won't just be ads. They've been collecting data on users and what they do, then analyzing that to deliver what they think will be ads that provide a service. This is called intrinsic targeting, and the dirty secret of the Web is that, despite all the big data programs thrown at advertising since the Web was spun, it still doesn't work.

Google presently dominates the Web ad market, with a share rising in the low 40s. Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), Facebook, and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) are all clustered below, at about 7% of the market each. But this is not down to extrinsic or intrinsic targeting. This is simply brute force. Google has an immense amount of inventory to sell. It also has a dominant position among the ad agencies selling the inventory. Google sells more ads because Google has more inventory. Google and Facebook are both trying to change this, Google with its Google+ social network and Facebook with Facebook Graph Search.

While it's often called a "ghost town," I've been on Google+ and it's not. It is a mostly ad-free collection of interests and articles. The former makes it more like LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD), which is a professional network and thus doing extrinsic targeting. The latter makes it more like Facebook's existing service.

Google has been pushing users of all its services to get "Google accounts" that include Plus, as well as Mail and other services, in order to aggregate user data and thus deliver this "Holy Grail" of ads as service. I've signed into all these services, and I use Google extensively each day. So far, it's just ads. Certainly they're better than what Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) usually delivers, which is usually a picture of something I just bought on or something I looked at and rejected there. Or sometimes it's an item someone else in my family bought. None of these things anticipate interest, which is what extrinsic ads are supposed to do. None of these things are service.

Facebook Graph Search claims to be aimed at bringing your friends, and their interests, to your search, but it's also an effort to create extrinsic targeting. This time, instead of having a data file on you, they build linked data files among the people you know. The search results are supposed to be of service, but if they really are of service, then over time Facebook has a more accurate picture of you and your interests, combined with those of your friends, and should be able to deliver ads that deliver service. So far, people I've spoken to say that Facebook, too, has yet to find this Holy Grail. Try it yourself. Look at the ads when you do searches or hang out with friends. See if they're service, or if they're just ads.

My own view is that the Holy Grail of successful intrinsic targeting doesn't exist. It's more like the grail in Monty Python's "Spamalot," which is whatever you were searching for in the first place. All the computing power in the world simply doesn't deliver ads that are truly services, that are truly what you want to buy at the point of purchase.

But if the grail doesn't exist, which stock should you be buying? Google still has the brute force approach, and advertisers will keep flocking to it. But if I were looking for truly targeted ads that work, ads that are worth a higher cost-per-thousand (CPM) than Google's run of network ads, I'd be looking to buy Yahoo (for its media properties) or LinkedIn.

This, and a limited number of shares outstanding (just 110 million), is why LinkedIn seems like the champion of the Web ad wars right now. They do extrinsic targeting, since ads are based on real working lives. Personally, I think they're ridiculously overpriced, and I believe their Amazon-like growth is going to slow well before they can justify their current valuation. But they're still the best at what everyone else is trying to do right now.

Or will be until someone proves me wrong and finds the grail.

Disclosure: I am long GOOG, YHOO. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.