Google AdWords and the Suffering of the World
As I am soon headed to Accra, I have been cruising blogs and sites that mention Ghana. I cam across Ethan Zuckerman's Weblog : Ethan's Weblog - My blog is in Cambridge, but my heart's in Accra and found his fascinating analysis of country names in Google's AdWords program.
"So why does the free market think these nations are worth so much per click? Some are obvious: St. Lucia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Italy and others are expensive vacation destinations - a user clicking on the ad might be prepared to pay thousands for tickets or a hotel. Others - Mexico, Panama, Dominican Republic, Bulgaria, Lebanon - have large expatriate populations who search for flights home, discount phone cards or financial remittance services.
I had to put in a longer quote, but in truth, go read the article. There are various strands of interest: Zuckerman's observations on the state of the world, the methodology and the data he hopes to extract. Zuckerman, by the way, founded http://www.geekcorps.org.
Sudan's the really weird one. (Angola baffled me for a moment, before I followed a few links and discovered that advertisers were encouraging me to travel to Angola, Indiana.) Search for Sudan on Google. You'll get a results page with eight ads, the maximum Google puts on a page. Every ad is from a nonprofit organization. Save the Children, Care USA, Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International and Mercy Corps are running straightforward 'We work in Sudan - support our work' ads; American Progress Action Fund and National Public Radio are running ads for their Sudan information sites. The top bidder is 'Global Nomads Group', an NGO which aims to connect children around the world through videoconferencing - they're also the leading bidder for 'Rwanda'.
The rank/price relationship for 'Sudan' implies that one or more advertisers either are receiving an excellent clickthrough rate, or are paying well over a dollar per click for their ads, likely both. This reveals an uncomfortable truth about the relief business - on those rare occasions a humanitarian crisis gets global attention, aid agencies have to take advantage of the situation to raise money.
Doctors Without Borders' website lists projects in 85 countries that they've worked on in the past few years. It's pretty rare that the ongoing strife in Burundi gets international attention - the money that comes in from donors concerned about Darfur supports a program for rape survivors in Bujumbura, HIV prevention efforts in Malawi and anti-malarial efforts in Nigeria. The situation is analagous to the controversy over the Red Cross's 'Liberty Fund', where the organization announced an intention to use some of the money donated to support the victims of 9/11 to support Red Cross projects around the country - Red Cross CEO Bernadine Healy ended up resigning over the public outcry. Jim Moore has raised concerns about Bono's DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) project buying Sudan impressions, advertising a site that had little to do with Sudan. (DATA no longer appears to be buying the 'Sudan' keyword.)
While it's interesting (and soul-crushingly depressing) to discover bidding wars over keywords associated with human suffering, I'm focused on the idea that I can pull data about web users' interest in different subjects out of this data. My data collection holy grail would be an algorithm that allowed me to estimate how much money is spent on each keyword based on click availability and predicted rank at different maximum click levels. Unfortunately, the math is way beyond my capabilities - any game theory/auction economists out there want to give me some pointers?"