On the Complexity of Ad Algorithms

June 4, 2021

It seems like advertising engineer Harikesh Nair has an innate love of intricacy—perhaps to the point of making things more complicated than they need to be. Tech Xplore interviews the algorithm aficionado in its post, “Expert Discusses the ‘Horrendously Complex Science’ Behind Online Advertising Research.” Once inspired by algorithmic innovations out of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, Nair has since settled his work in Asia, where the advertising scene is beautifully complicated by a couple of factors. First, its online marketplace is accessed almost entirely through mobile devices. Nair explains:

“With mobile apps, there’s limited real estate: Nobody browses beyond the first three pages. If you have 8 listings per page, that’s 24 products. So you have to surface 24 items out of 300 million possible product options, and you have to personalize the rankings by finding a good match between the user’s needs and what’s available. All of that has to be done really fast, within 200 microseconds [0.0002 seconds], and it has to be executed flawlessly. It’s a horrendously complex science problem.”

So there is that. We are told a strong social aspect to consumer behavior further complicates Asia’s marketing scene:

“Their society is more communal than ours, so consumption is more embedded in their social networks. Rather than go to a site and search for something and then click and buy and leave, which is typical American consumption behavior, people in China share products on each other’s social feeds, and by doing so they can often get a price reduction.”

Nair points out that, unlike Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which each play different roles, China’s Tencent and Alibaba each blend search, social media, and sales under one virtual roof. That is an interesting difference.

The data scientist goes on to wax poetic about how difficult it is to prove certain ads actually lead to certain purchases. The process involves elaborate, high-stakes experiments run in the background of ad auctions involving hundreds of thousands of advertisers. Then the results must be dumbed down for “people who don’t really know that much about statistics.” Mm hmm. Are we sure all this is not simply justification for confusing everyone and getting paid to do it?

Cynthia Murrell, June 4, 2021


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