Google's AdSense for iPhone Trips up Advertisers

Marketers Must Remember to Consider the Small Screen's Nuances

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NEW YORK ( -- In the two weeks since Google announced it would open up AdSense for mobile, serving up text and display ads inside apps, there are signs the online-ad giant -- and marketers -- are still figuring out how to create good experiences for mobile users.

HP iPhone ad
Click on the image to see the landing page that the University of Kentucky ad led to.

Google is helping marketers run ads on the mobile web and inside applications built for the iPhone and G1 Android phone, but some of those campaigns appear built for the desktop web and don't necessarily translate to the small screen.

For example, clicking on an ad with the headline "University of Kentucky" served inside the cellphone wallpaper app "Backgrounds" doesn't land the user on the home page of the Bluegrass State's university. Instead, users are directed to a Hewlett Packard page with information about student discounts for HP computers. The page has all the characteristics of a desktop web page, laden with text and with a multi-tabbed navigation bar that no mobile user would want to wade through. A mobile page, in contrast, would look more streamlined and simple, due to space limitations. (It's not clear why the ad is headlined by "University of Kentucky" rather than Hewlett Packard, whose name appears in smaller letters by way of a website address.)

In the same application, Google served an ad titled "Good and Funny Stuff" from But clicking through sends users to a page that begins with the sentence: "You need flash .... to view this site." At the moment, neither the first-generation G1 nor the iPhone supports the animation Flash software.

Meanwhile, an ad served in the Pandora radio app showed a link for a local cleaning service. When clicked, it took users to a plain landing page where one of the links appeared dead.

A reason for the flaws
One reason for these user-experience flaws? Some advertisers may be unaware that, by default, Google's AdSense campaigns run not only on the PC web but also in mobile unless the advertiser opts out of mobile ad serving. As a result, advertisers could be paying for mobile clicks, even though they're expecting PC-based clicks.

Trident iPhone ad
Click on the image to see the landing page that the Trident ad led to.

Google spokesman Eric Obenzinger said the company sent an e-mail last year notifying advertisers that mobile would join mix in its advertising program, and the launch was widely covered by the press and blogs. Mr. Obenzinger said advertisers have a choice to make mobile part of their campaigns and that it can be a visible and well-known feature for them.

In any case, Google's program is still in beta, and the click volumes are likely still far from being significant.

The kinks do test Google's philosophy that mobile-optimized web pages are not required for smartphones. The idea behind this thinking is that smartphones are really just minicomputers with browsers that read HTML pages; therefore, they provide a user experience that approximates the desktop web. Google's self-serve mobile program only runs advertising for smartphones with full HTML capabilities, including the iPhone and the G1 phone. For advertisers that want to run WAP-based campaigns for BlackBerrys and feature phones, Google has a whole other process.

Will consumer interest be sparked?
"The issue for consumers is, will they be motivated to zoom into the website and learn more?" said independent wireless analyst Greg Sterling. If the consumer's interest is casual, a landing page that delivers a streamlined and optimized mobile experience is more likely to engage the user, Mr. Sterling noted.

He also reckons that Google's strategy is to first establish its position in mobile and ask questions later.

"They're concerned about user experience but they're also concerned about scale. Google has a dilemma: Mobile is strategic, so how do we roll it out faster, rather than wait for everyone to build out their mobile websites? There may be some sub-optimized experience, but it's first trying to solve the problem of scale."

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