Measuring Google TV Advertising and Privacy

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Google’s advertising model goes beyond the Web to places like television. Yesterday, the Official Google Blog ran a post on TV advertising through Google, Tuning in to TV data, which told us that they are gauging interest in ads shown on TV by whether or not viewers change channels during commercials. A video featuring Google’s Dan Zigmond discusses how television ads might retain audiences:

I wonder about the approach, personally. When you’re watching TV, and a commercial comes on, do you change the channel to see what else is on? Do you get up and grab a snack or run a brief errand? Or, do you pay as much attention to the commercials as you do to the show that surrounds them? If you stay in front of the screen and pay attention to the advertising, do you change the channel if you don’t like an ad, or do you suffer through it knowing that it will be gone very soon?

I recalled seeing a patent application about Google television ads from last year that I didn’t write about and decided that it might be worth returning to. One of the listed inventors on the patent application is Dan Zigmond, who narrated the Google video. The patent application is:

Forecasting TV Impressions
Invented by Jason Bayer, Greg Hecht, and Daniel J. Zigmond
Assigned to Google Inc.
US Patent Application 20080263578
Published October 23, 2008
Filed: March 28, 2007


A computer-implemented method for forecasting television impressions comprises receiving information relating to previous television (TV) impressions at a time slot on a TV channel, information relating to one or more programs shown at the time slot on the TV channel, and predicting a future TV impression at the time slot on the TV channel. The future TV impression is based on at least one of the information related to previous TV impressions and the information related to programs shown at the time slot on the TV channel.

It makes sense for an advertiser to be able to tell how many viewers have historically watched certain television shows before they decide to place an advertisement on the show, and the patent filing details how it might predict the numbers of viewers by looking at past views, or impressions, for particular shows at specific timeslots on different channels. That prediction may consider other factors, such as whether or not the show to be presented is a rerun, or a special event, or what kind of content might be shown on other channels simultaneously.

The patent application also describes an “advertisement decision engine” that might help advertisers decide when to show their ads based upon those predictions concerning how many viewers might watch certain television programming.

Some other details from the patent filing:

1. Demographic information about past audience members of particular shows might be available to advertisers if the telecast provider makes that information available, such as “zip code, phone prefix, occupations, average income, and the like.” This information might be combined with other information about viewers taken from sources such as Experian to learn more about households where certain shows were viewed.

2. Advertisers can access information about the content being shown on other channels from the telecast provider, such as whether or not the Oscars or the Superbowl is being broadcast on another channel or viewing metrics from external sources Nielsen Media Research, Tribune Media Services, and others.

3. Viewing habits and behavioral patterns for previous shows and viewers might be accessible, including information about viewer’s “buying habits, hobbies, interests, and the like.”

4. Actual views of television programming can be collected by the telecast provider to enable this system to “compare[s] the predicted and actual impressions and uses any variations to improve future predictions of impressions by the prediction system.” This information might be collected by monitoring set-top boxes and recording instruments, such as digital video recorders.

5. Information about other shows being offered at specific times might be gathered from external sources such as electronic programming guides. This information might include additional information about the shows being offered, such as “genre, category, advisory information about the content, and the like.”


The patent filing discusses impressions for television shows that viewers might watch and how those impressions might help advertisers decide where to advertise.

The Official Google Blog from yesterday tells us that Google doesn’t stop at looking at impressions for the shows themselves:

Each week, Google analyzes data from millions of anonymized set-top boxes (STBs) to see which channels they were tuned to second by second. Our partner, EchoStar, provides this data. We’re then able to use tuning metrics to provide our advertisers with next-day reports of how many televisions showed their ads nationwide and how the audience responded with their remotes.

How might you define the success of advertising on television? One signal that you might look at is how many viewers started watching a commercial and changed the channel before the commercial had finished playing. Does that tell you whether or not the commercial was a good one or a bad one? A percentage of the audience may have wanted to see what else was available on other channels. Another percentage may have run to the refrigerator for a snack or when off on another errand.

I’ve written about how Google might look at social interaction with television broadcasts in the future and how they could use a microphone from your household to monitor ambient noise in your home, which would be transformed from actual audio to a visual representation of those sounds – which can’t be transformed back into audio – keeping any conversations private. A method like that might help the search engine know whether or not viewers are still in front of their TV screens when a commercial comes on or have left the room. That post is: Google Radio and TV Personalization, Ratings, and Advertising Patent Applications.

In the future, will Google be watching what you’re watching on TV, listening in to see if you’re still in front of the screen when ads come on, noting whether or not you’re channel surfing when those ads are broadcast? Much of that (except for the listening in part) is happening now for viewers using certain telecast services.

The Official Google Blog post concludes:

Through our analysis of tuning data from millions of set-top boxes, we’re getting closer to matching the right ads to the right television audience. It takes a lot of processing power to make sense of the enormous amount of data, but the insights to be gleaned are compelling. Not only are we able to offer advertisers better measurement and more accountability for their TV campaigns, but our goal is to also create a better viewing experience for TV audiences by showing viewers what they want to see.

Measuring how many people are paying attention to advertising on television might be helpful to advertisers, but it comes with a cost. As viewers and consumers, do we want to be scrutinized so closely by Google or our television programming providers or advertisers?

Do we want a record of our viewing habits maintained in databases next to information about our purchasing habits, our hobbies and interests, and our household income? Do we want microphones listening in to what we are doing while watching TV, even if the people recording assure us that they transform audio into visual representations of that sound that can’t be retransformed into the conversations that we might be holding?

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14 thoughts on “Measuring Google TV Advertising and Privacy”

  1. Certainly TV ads are more difficult to track and get good information on than internet based ads, where you can actually track surfing behavior, search behavior, click behavior and even purchase behavior.

    I think as TV becomes more and more internet and interactive based, Google’s leadership on this will really payoff for them.

  2. Maybe Google could use the street view van to go around checking if people are still sitting in front of the TV during ads! I think the biggest thing is simply how good the advert is – too many adverts these days are unimaginable tripe that don’t give the view much reason to watch. I think the adverts in the US a more interesting than in the UK.

  3. Hi People Finder,

    Right – there seem to be many more ways for viewers to interact with search ads than television advertising at this point, and that means more ways to try to measure how effective an ad might be. I used to be concerned that the web would become more like television – a broadcast medium where users have little contol over what they might see, and how they might interact with it. It appears that instead, television may become more like the internet – with more interactivity involved. It is interesting to see Google positioning themselves in this area.

  4. Hi Adam,

    Last year, I let my neighbors know that the street view cameras had captured images of them on their front porch. They were pretty concerned about that.

    Some ads are definitely better than others. I’ve seen more than a few lately that convinced me to never try the products advertised within them – I don’t think that’s what the advertisers wanted.

  5. Come on I hate interruption marketing. If they’re giving me a commercial it better be (I sorted this list by level of interest starting from the highest:)

    1. Funny, entertaining
    2. Informative
    3. Relevant

    I think that ads on the internet don’t understand how the internet works…if they took a look at some usability books they might understand. On the internet we grab information we are task oriented. Anything that restrict us we remove it. Non relevant ads are part of that. No wonder Google is going toward relevancy on the internet because that is the most important thing…more than being information but non relevant and funny…things that would have worked on TV but not on the internet. While watching TV we might want a good laugh or to learn something internet but while HUNTING for info on the net we do not need this.

    Just my opinion and some theories from books I’ve read on usability on how and why people browse the web.

  6. Hi Finder Mind,

    There are some significant differences in our perceptions of ads on TV and ads on the Web. Given that, I’m not a big fan of the interstitial ads that you see on sites like Forbes if you follow a link from a search engine to the site, and they display a full page ad before actually letting you see the page that you thought you were going to. I don’t look at those ads, but rather search for a “skip this ad” link as quickly as I can. I don’t even care if those ads might be relevant – they aren’t what I’m expecting to see. They remind me of TV advertising.

    I’m not sure how effective Google might be in showing ads on television in the future. It does appear that they are trying to focus upon bringing more relevant advertising to the TV screen. I guess we may have to wait and see.

  7. Yeah, TV ads are so much harder to track on how effective they are, especially when you have so many other advertising techniques in place. I guess a mix of them all will help a lot! Ads certainly have to be relevant though, but even though, I do find myself not wanting to look at ads at all, unless they are quirky etc :p

  8. Hi Oliver,

    Good point. Tracking how many TV ads are shown is different than tracking how many are actually viewed. 🙂

    Just because your eyes might be glued to a screen when you’re watching something on TV that you really enjoy doesn’t mean that your attention stays there when that program is interrupted for a commercial break.

  9. This seems, to me, to be a massive violation of your right to privacy. I’m glad I don’t have cable so these people can’t gather this information about me.

  10. Hi Warren,

    Our right to privacy has been facing many new challenges with new technologies. Many services that have been starting to collect information about the ways that people use their services have been starting to distinquish between “privacy” and “personally identifiable information,” these days. While many services may collect information about your specific use of a service like which shows and advertising you see, when they share that kind of information with potential and present advertisers, they don’t share information about you specifically but rather in the aggregate.

    Does that make the intrusion into your privacy any less? I’m not sure that it does.

  11. This is an interesting post indeed! I think that they need to start this process off with something like a viral twitter poll that will reach as many people as possible, where the behaviour of the individual during commercials are polled, and then from that data they can start looking at what kind of percentages actually watch TV ads whilst the TV is tuned to them.

    Ad breaks are just that – breaks to most people, when you can go get a snack, visit the loo, switch on the kettle, etc. Figuring out the percentages here could be really interesting….

  12. Hi Jacques,

    I’m suspect that TV will continue to become more interactive. Something like Twitter for TV might be interesting. 🙂

    I agree with you on the nature of ad breaks, but being able to pause something you’re watching whenever you want sounds pretty attractive. as well.

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