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by Christopher Tozzi, Jul 11, 2017

Improving AdSense: Protecting Placement With Blockchains


Digital Ads

Those in the travel business may assume that upon purchasing online advertisements, the ads will be displayed on websites related to travel. But the reality can be surprising.

These business owners may find that their ads appear on websites that have nothing to do with travel — or even websites with offensive content. Because of the complex and sometimes unpredictable ways in which traditional online advertising platforms place ads, advertisements for legitimate businesses can end up in some pretty unsavory corners of the web, on sites related to terrorism, pornography, racism and other problematic phenomena.

By driving more effective placement of ads, blockchain technology can solve this significant problem.

The Problem With Online Ads

Web users today enjoy access to virtually infinite amounts of free online content thanks to a simple paradigm: Website owners allow platforms like Google AdSense to display ads on the sites they control. The site owners receive payment based on the number of page views or clicks that the ads receive. This strategy allows content owners to generate revenue without charging visitors to view their content.

AdSense and other ad placement programs determine which ads to show to which users through a combination of factors, which range from the language of an ad, to the content of a website, to the personal interests of a particular user. The practice of placing ads based on personal interest is the main reason unrelated ads can appear on any given website. If a user visits a few sites related to Caribbean cruises, for example, AdSense will identify that user as someone interested in travel-related ads. Those ads may follow the user as they browse to sites that don’t relate to travel, including illicit or unsavory ones that the advertiser may not wish to associate with their brand.

Because Google places very few restrictions on the types of sites that AdSense will work with, sites with content that many people find objectionable may display ads served by the platform.

This process means mainstream companies may inadvertently end up funding terrorist organizations. Somewhat less dramatically, a business may find its ads displayed on sites that endorse political views with which the business does not wish to associate itself.

Business owners reasonably view these situations as misuse of their advertising dollars. They also risk backlash from customers who don’t understand the complexities of online ad placement and assume that businesses actively choose to buy ad space from objectionable sites.

Traditional online advertising platforms like AdSense do offer solutions to these challenges. Advertisers can choose to have ad programs exclude particular sites when placing ads. They can also block certain categories of websites. These approaches are clunky at best, however. It’s difficult for advertisers to anticipate and block every site or category of site that they might not want to associate with. And if advertisers block too many sites, they could inadvertently undermine the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns by excluding non-objectionable websites where they could reach interested users.

Blockchains: A Better Solution

Blockchain technology offers solutions to these digital ad placement challenges. By enabling a totally new strategy for determining which ads to display for which users, blockchains allow businesses to bypass the risk of unknowingly advertising on sites to which they or their customers object.

Blockchain-based digital advertising is still maturing. But there are multiple possibilities for integrating blockchains into ad placement strategies. One of the most compelling concepts to emerge so far is that powering the Brave browser. Brave blocks traditional ads and ad trackers by default. In their place, the browser allows users to view ads related to information of their choice. The ads are bought and sold in cryptocurrency.

This approach upends the traditional digital advertising paradigm: It restores power to users and advertisers, rather than allowing third-party ad placement platforms to decide who sees whose ads. Blockchain-based advertising platforms like Brave were designed to make ad placement more effective and private; happily, they solved the problem of ads appearing on objectionable sites along the way.

Instead of following users across the web and deploying complex algorithms to decide which ads to display on sites that they visit, blockchain-based ad networks make placement determinations based on the expressed preferences of the users themselves.

Blockchains can also help to solve ad placement challenges by providing a more reliable and transparent way for advertisers to identify where their ads appear. In the traditional approach, only the ad placement companies have the ability to track where a given ad is displayed. The companies can choose to share this information with their customers (in this case, the advertisers) if they wish, but they rarely do so directly. Instead, such companies generally offer ad placement information as part of complex analytics packages that do not necessarily expose the raw placement data.

Blockchain-based ad networks like adChain solve this challenge by using blockchains to store information about ad placement. The advertisers can then track the data in a reliable, open, non-obfuscated way. This approach not only makes it easier for advertisers to identify ads that end up on sites they don’t want to support, but also allows them to more easily assess the overall effectiveness of their ad campaigns.

Finally, it’s conceivable that blockchain technology could be used to establish community-based consensus regarding which sites should be excluded from ad placement. For example, if the vast majority of advertisers and users in a given community were to vote against displaying ads on a site associated with terrorism, that decision could be stored in a blockchain so that ads would not appear on the site in question.

The advantage of this approach is that it would allow advertisers to automatically avoid placing ads on objectionable websites. Rather than having to preconfigure their ad placement policies and hope that they yield the desired results, advertisers and business owners could rely on the consensus of the blockchain to decide where ads should not be placed. And because the consensus would be decentralized, no primary authority would have the ability to censor websites from ad placement lists.

No developers have yet begun work on community consensus solutions, and there are limitations. The biggest obstacle is that this process would work only in contexts with a high degree of consensus regarding which sites should be blocked from displaying ads. In situations where a significant minority of participants in the blockchain believe a site is not objectionable, for instance, it would become impossible to determine whether or not to block a given site.

Still, existing blockchain-based ad platforms offer a solution to a problem that has long plagued advertisers. Because they eliminate the need to rely on user tracking as a means of determining where to place ads, ad placement processes based on blockchain technology are more transparent and easier to monitor. And in the future, blockchains could even be used to tailor ad placement in a fully-automated way on the basis of decentralized community consensus about which sites are not appropriate for displaying certain types of ads.

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