An Early Look at How Gmail Works

For the past week, DM News has been one of the 1,000 users Google invited to test its controversial new e-mail service, Gmail.

A common complaint by Gmail critics is that scanning personal e-mail messages to place ads is invasive, or, in the words of California state Sen. Liz Figueroa, “like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home.”

But the vast majority of Gmail messages have contained no advertising. Google spokesman David Krane said the company is judicious about the frequency, and users should not expect to see them in most messages.

One unusual feature of Gmail is how it stores information in “conversations,” which build as a user corresponds with someone. As the conversations grow, Google's AdSense listings will shift as the messages change subjects.

Of the ads received, some have been impressively targeted, highlighting the potential payoff for advertisers. One e-mail message about a visit to New York to watch a Yankees game was accompanied by text listings offering Yankees tickets and merchandise. Another e-mail about an upcoming marathon contained an ad for endurance-boosting supplements.

Commercial e-mail is the most likely to receive text listings. The DM News daily e-mail newsletter returned ads for mailing listings and e-mail marketing software; an e-mail from Turbo Tax yielded listings from tax-preparation services. A reminder order from 1-800 Contacts comes with offers from competing services.

As a product still in testing, however, Gmail often gets it wrong. Invoices from cell-phone providers target listings for invoice services, not cell phones. An e-mail mentioning 9/11 and the war in Iraq triggered listings for online memorials. Krane said Google filtered ads from sensitive subjects and would continue to build this capacity.

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