Google Gmail Ads Appear Within Inbox

Gmail Sponsored Promotions look like regular Gmails but are ads in new format that pushes the boundaries of ad placement.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

July 22, 2013

3 Min Read

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Most Google Gmail users are used to seeing ads alongside their email messages. Despite derision from competitors who cast Gmail's algorithmic ad personalization as an invasion of privacy and despite many fruitless lawsuits filed by those aggrieved by automatic email scanning, Gmail users have accepted ads around their inbox as a price worth paying for Google's free email service.

Soon, Gmail users who have enabled the recently introduced tabbed inbox format can expect to see ads in their inboxes, looking like other email messages rather than graphically distinct page elements. The ads, called Gmail Sponsored Promotions, show up in the Promotions tab of the tabbed Gmail inbox, along with other promotion-oriented messages.

The similarity of these ads to email messages is cosmetic rather than functional, however. Though they look like regular unopened email messages, apart from a small "Ad" label and subtle shading, they are not email messages from a technical perspective. Thus, they cannot be handled by writing a Gmail filter, do not pass through email servers or spam filters, and probably do not meet the regulatory definition of unsolicited commercial email or spam.

[ Anxious to use Google Wallet with Gmail? Read Google Invites Users To Send Money Via Gmail. ]

The ads also are not subject to Gmail's settings for handling external content. Gmail provides users two options for handling email content in its Settings: 1) Always display external content (such as images) sent by trusted senders; and 2) Ask before displaying external content. If the user chooses not to display external content by default — an option favored by privacy and security advocates — Gmail Sponsored Promotions are nonetheless displayed. The ads are treated as trusted content.

Google considers Gmail Sponsored Promotions to be "a UI change," according to a company spokesperson, who declined to speculate about how regulators might view the ads.

A spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission said the agency was unable to comment specifically about Gmail's latest ad format, but noted that as a rule, advertisements should be identifiable as such no matter where they appear.

Yet, these ads are unlike traditional Google-supplied banner ads or text ads: They can be shared, via email. "It's a new type of ad which you can forward to a friend, or star to save it to your inbox," Google explains in a sidebar note that appears when you click on an ad in the new format. "Forward," however, is something of a misnomer since the forward button creates a new email message as a container for the ad rather than redirecting a previously stored email.

The ads do not count against Gmail message quotas and copies of the ads are not retained on Google's IMAP servers unless forwarded.

In short, these ads are just blocks of HTML and JavaScript code suitable for presentation in Gmail by Google's ad servers or for forwarding via Gmail by users. If enabled, they can be viewed separately at this URL:

Google has been looking for ways to make more money from ads as mobile devices become more popular, a shift that has made advertising more of challenge. As its recent second-quarter earnings suggest, advertising that works on desktop computers doesn't work as well on mobile devices. So new strategies are necessary.

Avoiding these Gmail ads is easy enough for those so inclined. To do so, simply disable the Promotions tab. This will move messages presented in the tab to the Primary tab and prevent the display of Gmail Sponsored Promotion ads. Google users also can alter their advertising settings to opt out of targeted ads.

Gmail Sponsored Promotions remain in beta testing, but advertisers can request admission into the beta program by contacting their Google advertising representative.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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