"Brand advertisers tend to focus more on the use of high-impact formats like video and sound to engage consumers on an emotional level, while precision targeting takes a back seat," Frank said. "Neither Google nor Facebook seems to have a very good answer for that."
And if these vendors did manage to find a good answer, would that answer work in such a way as to appease the Federal Trade Commission, which is watching the evolution of online advertising with a concerned eye? Politicians on Capitol Hill are pushing legislation to regulate the online ad market with a special attention on the data Web services providers use to target customers.
"A lot of people are not taking that whole FTC angle seriously, and they should because I think something is going to happen," Sterling added.
Complicating the latest online ad land-grab is Twitter, the popular microblogging service that has come to encompass the practice of real-time Internet communications. Users post 140 character or less messages to a network of users, telling them what they're doing at a particular moment in time. Twitter has more than 17 million users and its growth shows no sign of slowing.
Twitters' founders have confounded analyst and blogger corps by refusing to commit to any business model. Facebook and Google both failed to buy the company. Is Twitter the missing link to socially targeted advertising?
Search expert John Battelle believes Twitter's real-time search scares Google, while Sterling notes that "it's an open question whether Twitter will evolve into some search substitute in some limited number of cases."
Sterling allows that while the word-of-mouth factor on Facebook and Twitter are highly relevant and people value the trusted sources of information they enable, sometimes it's hard to beat good old-fashioned Google, which by the way, also offers collaboration apps and other Web services.
"I've been talking with a friend about planning a vacation and the Internet offers all of these resources, but it's a maddening and exhausting process checking all of these deals and sites," Sterling said.
"The introduction of additional complexity to the system is not what end users want. You could argue the success of Google is built on its speed and simplicity. It delivers pretty good results consistently. The idea of adding layers of complexity to that proposition is undesirable to the mainstream."