The Dark Side of Content Based Advertising

Content based advertising through ad network such as Google AdSense is a popular method many businesses use to monetize their websites. However, the ads displayed may not always be what you want your readers to see.

On Friday, a tragic event took place in Aurora, Colorado in which a gunman entered a movie theater and open fired. Many people lost their lives and countless others were injured.

When an online boutique noticed the trending #Aurora hastag, they quickly jumped on the hashtag bandwagon by blindly posting a promotional tweet without researching the subject. As you can imagine, the backlash was severe and ran a story about their social media mis-step.

And this is where the dark-side of content based ads can rear its ugly head.

Content based ad displayed on for a self-defense quiz.

Not all content based advertising may be appropriate for your website

The idea behind content based advertising is to display ads that best match the page content. The more relevant an ad is to the content, the more likely it will be relevant to the reader, and more likely clicked. Given Mashable’s story included the phrase “mass shooting”, it’s not surprising the “Do You Feel Lucky” ad promoting a self-defense quiz would be shown.

However, for website owners, relevance is only half of the equation. If you don’t want readers to be offended, it’s important to ask, “Are the ads appropriate?”

In the above example, I feel, the self-defense ad was definitely relevant to the content. But a man wearing a ski-mask and pointing a gun at me? Given the nature and timing of the story, the ad isn’t appropriate.

How to keep content based ads relevant and appropriate

Because of how content based ads work, a website owner doesn’t have 100% control over the ads a publisher displays. That’s actually one of the reasons why webmaster use an ad network — all the heavy lifting is done for them.

That said, there are steps you can take that give you editorial control over the ads that appear on your site.

1. Block Ads

If you’re using an ad network such as Google AdSense, you can block ads by the following criteria. This will help improve relevance as well as avoid displaying ads from competitors.

  • By Advertiser URL
  • By General ad category
  • By Sensitive ad category
  • By Ad network

Learn more about Google AdSense blocking options.

2. Preview Website Ads

If your ad network has this option (and most do), take time to preview ads that can be displayed on your site. Think of it as personal advertising peep hole. You get to see who’s on your front porch before opening the door.

3. Review Your Web Pages

This is, by far, the most important because no matter how much time and effort you put into blocking and previewing ads, something inappropriate can still mange to slip through. To catch and remove inappropriate ads before they cause too much damage, you’ll simply need to manually audit your web pages. This is especially true if your articles are covering sensitive issues or breaking stories such as the Mashable example above.

When you do find an ad that isn’t relevant or appropriate for your audience, you can quickly block the advertisers URL. You can learn more about how to block ads from specific websites.

Of course, as soon as I publish this article, I’ll have to follow my own recommendations (now and later) to make sure any display ads don’t end up making this page another example on content based ads gone wrong.


Are you using an ad network on your site? If so, what are your best tips for ensuring web advertising is the most effective, relevant, and appropriate for your readers?

Please post your thoughts and comments below. Thanks!