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Online advertising's protracted adolescence

Worries about Google's secondary-search feature, couple with media companies' ad network efforts, indicate an increasingly rocky and interesting online-ad landscape.

Two stories published on Monday highlight how tricky it can be to mesh Web user convenience with online advertisers' marketing goals.

The New York Times article "A new tool from Google alarms sites" says some retailers and publishers are concerned that the secondary-search tool unveiled by Google earlier this month could dilute user interest in their sites because it pulls up not only more pages from the relevant company but also displays ads from competing sites.

While analysts have praised the feature--and TechCrunch notes that 55 percent of its readers favor the service--the Times story also points out that the tool allows Google to profit from "ads it sells against the brand" and "keeps users searching on Google pages and not pages of the destination Web site."

"Google is showing a level of aggressiveness with this that's just not needed," Alan Rimm-Kaufman, a former executive with the electronics retailer Crutchfield who is now an Internet consultant, told the paper.

A Web site can have the feature turned off, though Google says that once that's done, it's unlikely to turn it back on, should the site's operators change their mind. And if more and more users find that they like the tool, Web sites will have a harder time deciding whether they want to miss out on the increased traffic the service can generate, just because it gives exposure to competitors' ads.

The issue of brand protection also takes center stage in an Associated Press story on the continuing efforts of traditional media companies--Conde Nast, Viacom, CBS, and, more recently, Forbes--to develop their own topic-specific ad networks to compete with big Web portals for advertiser dollars.

The story pinpoints the key challenge these media companies face: it'll take considerable ingenuity, investment, and stamina for them to offer a network that can compete with the reach of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, especially as they continue to add tools to their advertising offerings, such as those of display ad specialist DoubleClick, which Google recently acquired.

How valuable are the online identities of some of these media brands? Just follow the advertising dollars to find out.