How does Google know what I’m looking at?

Active View is supposed to reveal whether or not an online display ad was seen

Google announced new tools yesterday to help marketers measure how their ads are doing. One of these is Active View, which claims to reveal whether or not an online display ad was in fact seen.

Let’s think about that for a second.

Google has always been able to tell its advertisers whether an ad was served. They also can report how many times it was clicked on. These numbers aren’t guesses, they are hard data, the kind of exact information Google loves. But what happens in between those two metrics? If an ad is served but not clicked on, did it fail? The entire history of television ads would suggests otherwise. Nobody really expects me to buy a Twix bar at the exact moment I see an ad for one on TV. I’m supposed to slowly learn to associate Twix with deliciousness and decadence and sexual magnificence or some such twaddle, until one day I find myself needing to make a candy decision and hey, there it is! This kind of slow brainwashing is what television was built on, but it’s proven very hard to replicate online. If I see a dozen Twix ads on the Internet today, it’s certainly possible that they will have some subtle, even subliminal effect on me, but unless I click on one of the ads, how would Twix ever know? And if the ad is served on Google’s ad network, how will Google ever get paid? It’s a problem Active View promises to solve.

But how? When I first heard about a Google app that knows whether I’ve looked at something, I imagined some incredibly high-tech retina-tracking screen that knows which part of a web page my eye is focused on and for how long. This kind of technology does exist, but it’s mostly used in clinical trials or in focus groups, providing small sample sets of data that are then sloppily extrapolated onto millions. Active View isn’t any of that. The Google method does indeed provide precise data, but precisely what the data tells us is another story.

Here’s how Active View works: Google can track your scrolling. If you load up a web page and never scroll down, they know that nothing below a certain pixel point was seen. If you immediately move to the bottom, they know that you weren’t at the top long enough for anything to register. But if at least 50 per cent of a display ad was on your screen for at least a second, Google counts that as an ad you viewed.

To which I reply: bulls**t.

Active View is a messy guess that ignores our well-honed abilities to filter out visual clutter. It’s just not a believable conclusion to arrive at.

It’s understandable that Google wants to standardize some kind of metric for unclicked advertising exposure, which no doubt does hold value for advertisers. But engaging in the same kind of flim-flammery that the Neilsen people trade in won’t get the job done. And, if you’ll excuse me, it’s very un-Googly.

Jesse Brown is the host of’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown