The News Sites That Use Ad-Targeting the Most: NYT, Yahoo, CNN

Do you expect different kinds of advertising from news sites than from other web content?

Ad targeting is much in the news these days. As you cruise around the web, various companies drop little bits of tracking code on you known as "cookies." As you click around the web, those cookies record your visits to websites and build up a profile about who you are. Then, that data is either used by an advertising firm directly or sold to one. The data is used to present a personalized ad to you based on what the it appears to show about you. The thinking goes that the ads will be better if they are more tailored to who you are. Better, to an advertiser, simply means that you'll be more likely to click the ad than you would a generic version shown to all users.  Better, to a publication, means the ability to generate more money per user.

There are parts of this model that make me queasy. And it is already the common model across vast tracts of Internet real estate.

However, many major news sites, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, have not enabled ad targeting to any great extent, including this website. The site's complete methodology is available here, but essentially, researchers visited the sites to see if different "people" were getting different ads.

In the main PEJ study, only the New York Times, Yahoo, and CNN practiced high levels of ad targeting to specific types of individuals.

It's worth noting that in a January re-check of all these sites, The Atlantic and LA Times had moved to the medium column. I reproduce this particular chart because it is the one included in the PEJ report. I would be willing to bet that few of the sites in the left column will be there by the end of 2012 and a few more will probably have moved into the "high" column.

I post this chart mostly to pose the question: do people feel differently about ad targeting at sites that have a (nominal, at least) civic purpose? Will news sites, particularly those with 20-century cred, be asked to play by different rules than the rest of the Internet? The question I'm asking myself is: do we want to?

On the one hand, ad tracking can be creepy: Visit a wedding site and suddenly your ads are all wedding themed. We feel that we're being watched, and though we're not convinced that data is being ill-used, we don't have any guarantees that it won't be somehow in some way we don't even understand.

On the other hand, digital audiences are worth such small amounts relative to their print counterparts. If we want newsrooms to survive in anything close to their current form, we need news sites that can effectively generate revenue. And on the Internet, that means serving up your readers with an extra helping of data.

Image: Alexis Madrigal based on data from Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.