By RANDALL STROSS
When Google introduced Gmail seven years ago, it didnt copy Yahoo Mail or Microsofts Hotmail. Gmail was built for distraction-free speed. The ads were text-only, and so unobtrusive that you could forget they were even there.
In this respect, Gmail has been a retro service, resembling the text-only computing of ancient times, before mice and touch pads.
Google realized from the start that irrelevant ads would annoy its users. So it developed software that analyzed the words in an incoming message and then selected the seemingly most salient ads among those in its inventory.
Now, better ads are coming to Google, the company recently announced. But as has always been the case, ads in Gmail will remain fully automated no humans read your messages, the company says.
Seven years in, its amazing to me how crude the Gmail ad-matching system still is. This week, an e-mail from my daughters school about a coming Teacher Appreciation Week brought an ad inviting me to Become a Teacher, Earn a Masters. A different e-mail, which made no mention of medical matters but had the phrase no recurrence, was accompanied by an ad for patients who had had a mastectomy.
Gmail presents a single text ad when you look at an inbox view and havent selected a particular message. A recent sampling of ads included one inviting me to invest in oil stocks; a message from Rand Paul seeking my signature on a petition; and a plea from BP seeking to tell me about its restoration work in the Gulf of Mexico.
I have no idea how I was matched to any of those ads. Alex Gawley, Googles senior product manager overseeing Gmail, explained that in cases like these, the advertiser may be using keywords that are very broad.
Which means that, despite Googles intent, the ads can be matched to most any e-mail message, making the likelihood of the ad matching my particular interests very small.
Mr. Gawley said Gmails revamped ad-matching system, now in limited tests, analyzes context as well as the content of an individual message. It looks at what he calls signals in your inbox, like whether you open messages with particular keywords and dont open those with other keywords.
Given that advertisers pay Google only if a user takes the trouble to click on the ad, it might seem that the company has every reason to display