While reading my latest blog post, my wife suddenly burst out laughing. Turns out, she wasn't laughing at my scintillating wittiness, however -- she was laughing at the ads clipped onto my post by AdSense.
AdSense, and other targeted-advertisement software, tries to pick up on keywords in websites, and using those cues, to choose advertisements that are appropriate for the audience. The ads on my Facebook page, for example, often have to do with scuba diving, travel, and music, three things I have identified as hobbies in my profile. This time, however, AdSense sort of backfired.
Yesterday's post, you may remember, was on how the pseudoscience of astrology is a fine example of something called dart-thrower's bias. And the ads? Yes, you've guessed it. My blog yesterday was full of ads for horoscopes ("Find your destiny in the stars!") and for equipment for darts players.
That's the problem with targeted-ad software; it only picks up on keywords, but is unable to tell the context, and (more importantly) if those keywords are being cast in a positive or a negative light. The first time I noticed this phenomenon was after I wrote a fairly virulently anti-religious post, and for the next few days was inundated with ads recommending I be born again in Christ ("visit this website to find out how!"). At first, I thought that AdSense had a pro-Christian bent and was monitoring my posts, and sending me evangelical advertisements when I went too far off the deep end. But no, it's just a function of how the software works.
You never know what the software will notice. I made a passing mention of Geordi LaForge in a recent post, and the next day, there were ads for Star Trek memorabilia. I titled a post about optical illusions "Your Lying Eyes" and got ads for classic rock recordings, including, of course, The Eagles. One of the funnier misses was years ago, when my blog was hosted on a different site, and I wrote about the USA's penchant for aggressive posturing on the stage of worldwide politics. The title of the post was "Tomcat Diplomacy."
For weeks afterwards, there were ads for subscriptions to cat care magazines and websites with humorous cat photographs.
Some of the ads, however, are just plain weird. I'm not quite sure how to take the one I saw a while back which said, "You're Not Ugly, You're Just Fat," and had a link to a diet site. I think it should be evident from my profile photo that although I may have many physical flaws, obesity isn't one of them. For a while I was getting periodic advertisements whose headline said it was "for the discerning gay gentleman." I'm not sure about the "discerning" part; and although I'm definitely male, the "gentleman" part may also be up for debate. However, I can say with some assurance that I'm not gay (though, to quote Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that!"). I haven't seen that one in a while, so whatever odd keyword the software picked up that led it to conclude that I am gay appears to be gone.
Being that this is a blog that is, at its heart, devoted to science (although I must admit that my attention wanders to other subjects rather frequently), I thought it might be interesting to use the scientific method and run an experiment to see if we can mess around with the targeted-ad software. If it works, it'll be sort of like a computerized game of free-association. I'll throw a few keywords at it, and see what ads it generates. Here goes: "wine, beer, scotch, bourbon, rum, tequila." "Weasel, wombat, aardvark, lemur, lemming, wildebeest." "Crystals, auras, energy fields, telepathy, clairvoyance, ESP."
That should do it. I predict that I should start seeing advertisements for websites detailing how you use the psychic healing power of the mind to cure alcoholic wildlife. I'll keep you posted.