Wednesday, August 03, 2005 interview at OJR

Mark Glaser at OJR interviews Rich Skrenta and Chris Tolles of

It's a long and detailed interview, well worth reading. Here's some excerpts on Topix's advertising:
We started to pour in our categorization technology to the Google [AdSense] ads that were on our site, and it started working a lot better. We doubled the clickthrough rate on them. But beyond that, it made our site look better. Improving the quality of the advertising improved the quality of the entire product.

Google [ads] works great on a static Web page, but it's a disaster on most news sites and blogs ... [On] a story about a fire, the ad would be for a fire extinguisher or something like that. The famous case was when the New York Times' site had a story on a suitcase of body parts that washed ashore in New Jersey, and Google was showing luggage ads beside it.

Google will see 'Janet Jackson' 25 times in a story and put up an ad to buy a Janet Jackson CD next to the story. Our technology will see the same story and figure out it's actually a story about the FCC and indecency issues on the airwaves, and it's not actually an entertainment story. When you get that right, the 'buy her latest CD' ads go away, and ads for [FCC compliance] go up, and the clickthrough rate goes up, and the money you make goes up.

We have a bunch of artificial intelligence algorithms and a big knowledgebase, which basically is reading the words in every story. It's trying to figure out what the story is about ... it's all 100 percent automated.
It also appears is doing some simple targeting of advertising based on reader behavior:
[We] look at the cookie and see what pages they visited on Topix. And we could serve ads from that page rather than the worst-performing default ad that might be on the home page. It worked pretty well ... [Now] half or a third of the ads you see are relevant to something else you've looked at and not to what you're looking at.
Very interesting.

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