Why the Gmail ad targeting change should have minimal impact on advertisers

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Google’s long-running practice of mining email content in Gmail accounts to target ads is coming to an end later this year.

The company announced Friday that Gmail’s more than 1.2 billion users will no longer have their email content scanned for personalized ad targeting.

The news didn’t come from the ad side but from Diane Green, SVP of Google Cloud in a blog post titled, “As G Suite gains traction in the enterprise, G Suite’s Gmail and consumer Gmail to more closely align.” Apparently, potential G Suite customers have been concerned their emails would be scanned for ad targeting in the enterprise version of Gmail that is part of G Suite, the portfolio of apps that also includes versions Drive and Docs and Google Calendar tailored for business use. G Suite Gmail has, in fact, always been ad-free and will continue to be.

Mining emails for ad targeting has long been controversial (and was at the heart of Microsoft’s anti-Google Scroogled campaign). In 2014, in response to a lawsuit, Google agreed to stop scanning email content for ad targeting in the student version of Gmail. In December 2016, Google said it would scan emails in standard Gmail accounts only after the messages arrived in users’ inboxes, again in response to legal action.

The takeaway: Google has more to gain in building its G Suite business than from whatever ad revenue Google generated from mining email content in the free version of Gmail.

Google currently explains to consumers that Gmail messages are tailored based on content in their emails in addition to account settings.

What it will mean for advertisers

For advertisers, the move can be seen as part of a continuum in the shift to audience targeting powered by an increasing reliance on logged-in user data — demographics, search and browsing behavior, and more — that Google taps for ad targeting.

In other words, there are bigger gains to be had using in-market and affinity audiences, for example, than from targeting keywords that show up in our inboxes.

There are still several unknowns, such as how domain targeting will be used, but the key way to think about Gmail ads once this change goes into effect late this year will be in terms of audience, rather than contextual targeting.

Currently, for Gmail ads Google scans the body and subject of the last few hundred non-spam emails, including deleted and archived messages, for keyword, domain and topics targeting.

After the change, advertisers will still be able to use broad match keywords and topics targeting, but instead of matching against email content, keywords and topics will be matched to relevant interests that Google identifies based on browsing history and all the other signals it takes into account when building audiences of signed-in users who are opted in to ad personalization.

This is a big change in practice for Google, but the impact on advertisers is likely to be relatively minimal, in large part because Google’s audience modeling has become much more powerful. It doesn’t need to match a keyword to a potentially deleted email to get advertisers to buy Gmail ads anymore.

About The Author

As Third Door Media’s paid media reporter, Ginny Marvin writes about paid online marketing topics including paid search, paid social, display and retargeting for Search Engine Land and Marketing Land. With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Ginny has held both in-house and agency management positions. She provides search marketing and demand generation advice for ecommerce companies and can be found on Twitter as @ginnymarvin.


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