News Sites Struggle with Ad Targeting

News publishers are trailing behind the rest of the Web when it comes to ad-targeting technology.

Pew’s Research Center for Excellence in Journalism released a study of 22 news sites and found that just three employed “high levels” of targeting technology that delivers ads based on users’ previous online behavior. (Pew defines a high level of targeting as a site with at least 45 percent of the ads showing different ads from one user to the next.) Pew said 15 used “minimal” levels of targeting.

The research employed a curious methodology. Pew’s researchers would visit sites using their regular browser, then re-visit them using a different browser. The findings were based on the researchers’ perceptions of whether or not the ads were targeted. It did not deploy tech like Ghostery that sniffs out whether ad targeters fire pixels in order to target ads.

The study focused on premium digital ads that appear on the homepage or on top of the article, where ad rates are the highest. Additionally, the study found that the tried-and-true banner-ad philosophy that’s been driving online advertising for more than a decade is still the dominant form across these websites. The issue is that there are other tools the study points to — namely, behavioral targeting — that these media outlets aren’t employing to their best use.

It’s no surprise then that Pew found the efficacy of the ads to be low. Perhaps just as important, the study found, “top news websites in the country have had little success getting advertisers from traditional platforms to move online.”

The larger issue for news sites goes beyond the use of off-the-shelf targeting tech. It’s that the data they’re using — people’s reading habits — isn’t all that valuable of a signal compared to others available online. Content consumption is unlikely to trump search and e-commerce behavior anytime soon as a signal for consumer intent.

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