Elevator Adverts

Elevator adverts are a way of displaying advertisements on web pages. Not for elevators in buildings. The name refers to the way the advert moves up and down the margin of the page, as the reader scrolls up and down. A standard “skyscrapper” advertising block is always visible, right next to where the user is reading.

Advertising networks are keen for adverts to be displayed “above the fold” – in the area of the screen first visible when the page loads. However, if the page is content-rich, the best locations are not at the top of the page: In the past, I have run advertising using 2 skyscrappers, one on top of the other. As the reader scrolls down the page, the second advert eventually becomes visible. The best return (from affiliate advertising) was from the bottom advert, not the top. The reason is simple: Reading down the page, the lower advert tends to be next to the important text being read. In contrast, the upper advert tends to sit next to the list of page contents, so is often skipped over.

Instead of stacking adverts, why not just move the advert down the page as the reader scrolls?

The webpage needs an “elevator shaft” down the left margin. For example, apply the CSS “margin-left: 175px” to the division (“div” block) containing the page’s content, to create the elevator shaft. More complex designs may require more work. It is important that the elevator shaft runs close to edge of the text, to continually catch the eye of the reader.

Simply applying a “position: fixed” to style the division containing the advert, would always show the advert in the top-left corner, hanging down the elevator shaft. Unfortunately, the top part of the page normally contains a title block, so the elevator shaft should not travel the full height of the page. Older browsers (notably Internet Explorer 6) do not support “position: fixed”, but we still need to make sure the advert “fails gracefully”, by displaying in a sensible position.

My solution’s code is below. Read More

De-Analysing Blizzard’s Add-On Policy

Blizzard Entertainment’s new add-on policy has been discussed by everyone from Lum to Slashdot. The number of developers directly affected by the change is small, since only a few add-ons are popular enough to be considered commercial ventures. The policy is more significant because it changes a lot of established conventions, and goes to the heart of how Blizzard embraces (or increasingly, shuns) the talent within its player community. This article is an attempt to analyse the real motivations behind the policy, and highlight the apparent contradiction in policy between in-game add-ons and web-based services. Read More

Infecting the Ad Pool

Malicious Advertising (Malvertising) is becoming a problem. This is the practice of purchasing advertising space on unsuspecting websites, then using that space to run adverts which automatically redirect the user’s browser to a malware site – a site that distributes viruses, spyware, and other computer nasties.

The practice first emerged in 2006. Already 2008 has seen may large publishers (website operators) attacked, including Classmates, USA Today, Photobucket, and MySpace.

Late last night I visited one of my own websites and got immediately redirected off to a domain already blacklisted by Google, which in turn redirected to another site that was intent on installing a scareware “virus checker”. ZAM (a gaming network), already plagued by “XP Online Scanner” adverts earlier this year, had again been hit by malicious adverts. The timing, just after midnight UTC Saturday, was impeccable: Advertising networks tend to work sensible business hours, ensuring 48 hours of infestation before anyone starts to investigate it. [Although I should add that in this case I did get a positive resolution within 24 hours.]

My response was to temporarily abandon the advertising network that had delivered the “malvert”, and switch to affiliate advertising I control.

This article explains why publishers have a very low tolerance of malverts, and consequently why it is in the best interests of advertising networks to deal with malvertising before it becomes widespread.

Valuing Users

The cost to a malware writer of placing a single malvert is in the order of $0.001, with the publisher receiving somewhat less than that. The pricing model assumes a high volume of advertising is ignored by users: An advertiser might need to screen thousands of adverts to get any referrals (click-throughs). It does not assume that the adverts will immediately refer every user to the advertiser’s site, without user interaction.

For malware writers this is both cheap and highly effective: Quantcast and Compete suggest xponlinescanner.com (a recent case of malicious advertising) attracted 1-2% of all US internet users in May: A dominance achieved by less than 500 other sites worldwide. Something advertising agencies can only dream about. Quantcast’s demographic analysis also indicates that the old, poor or poorly educated are more likely than other internet users to be caught by malware.

The publisher got a fraction of a cent, and may have lost 1 or more customers forever:

New visitors essentially bounce straight into “virus hell”. They are never coming back; not after “what you did to their computers”. Regular visitors assume your site was “hacked” (a security breach on your servers), and loose confidence. Even if they stay, they’ll think twice about typing their credit card number in again. If the site relies on viral traffic, they will be sure to tell their friends not to visit as well.

So Block the Advert!

Unless the publisher has a very strong community, they might never realise why their users are leaving: Malverts may be targeted by location or time of day, such that the publisher never sees them.

Assuming the publisher knows about the malvertising, finding the source transpires to be exceptionally hard. Malicious adverts may be embedded in an advert that looks perfectly normal, but only triggers an automatic redirect under certain circumstances. So even in simple cases, where the publisher has a direct relationship to advertisers, finding malware requires the advert to be tested.

But adverts are increasingly run via networks, who increasingly rely on advertising exchanges. So a large publisher could be running practically any advertising campaign in existence. I was running over 2,000 different campaigns (many of which have multiple adverts), and my site is small fry.

So once a malicious advert enters the system, it can spread like a virus throughout online advertising networks, almost unchecked.

Reactions

Publishers who care about their customers (and consequently also tend to have the most valuable advertising inventory) are likely to avoid any advertising network that delivers malvertising:

  • They might establish direct relationships with reputable advertisers, which cuts the networks out of the loop completely. Only viable for large publishers or those in specific niches.
  • Or perhaps they will change to text or non-interactive adverts? Advertisers that rely on being able to communicate using imagary will have problems: The only publishers to remain with malware-infested networks will be those that do not care about their users. Precisely the sites that were probably not good places to advertise anyway.

Users will gradually grow more paranoid. Pop-up advertising is a perfect example: Browsers gave too much control to scripts, and not enough control to the user. The result was that pop-up blocking features became commonplace, and pop-ups became a redundant technology.

What are users’ “solutions” to malvertising? Completely blocking all adverts and disabling all scripting. How does that help advertisers, networks or publishers? It doesn’t.

Sadly users’ solutions will not include disabling Flash, the poor design of which seems to be at the heart of the malicious advertising (something countered by Adobe). Flash is so critical for online video most users cannot browse the internet without it.

Solutions

There still seems to be a lack of appreciation of the damage potential of malicious advertising. But there are solutions available to the industry collectively, as many of the authors below demonstrate:

BarCamp: Living on Virtual Fish

For those that missed my BarCamp Scotland presentation, “Living on Virtual Fish”, you can view it on SlideShare.

The following articles loosely correlate to each of the talk’s sections, and provide more depth and explanation:

  1. Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading?
  2. Adventures in Online Advertising
  3. Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing

Adventures in Online Advertising

This article summarises what I have learnt from introduction of advertising onto El’s Extreme Anglin’, a guide to fishing in the World of Warcraft (WoW). It introduces internet advertising with discussion of the earning potential, cashflow and ethics. The article then provides a series of case studies on specific topics, such as iteratively improving revenue, altering placement, cloaking, use of text or image adverts, and seasonal variations over Christmas. It should offer a useful introduction for those attempting to monetarise medium-sized websites.

Read More

Bill Urschel on Internet Advertising Innovation

Bill Urschel is the CEO of the internet advertising exchange, AdECN. William spoke to a Edinburgh Entrepreneurship Club/Edinburgh-Stanford Link gathering on 14 November 2007, about the development of AdECN, its role as an exchange market for internet advertising space, and the future of internet advertising. This article is based on Bill’s talk, which he gave in a personal capacity.

Development of AdECN

William Urschel first realising the market potential for computer/internet ventures when writing computer books. He has started a number of software/internet businesses since, and looks for three things in a new venture:

  1. Market: Something to address of a manageable size, with an overall growth trend (“the rising tide lifts all boats”).
  2. People: 1-5 people with either technology or business backgrounds, and the correct attitude and work ethic.
  3. Product: Address a need… and it is nice if it works.

Historically, advertisers would pay an advertising network, who would then display adverts using the advertising inventory on publishers’ websites. It was common for the network the advertiser dealt with to run adverts across multiple networks. Often business flowed from network to network to network, before an advert actually appeared on a publisher’s site. This resulted in reduced revenue for the publisher, as each network “middleman” took their share: Perhaps for every $1 of advertiser’s money spent, just $0.18 would reach publishers. Waste still existed in the market: Half of the display advertising market was either going unsold or “under-sold” (sold for a significantly lower value than it could attain, simply to fill the space).

How AdECN Works

AdECN was launched in 2002, but didn’t “get moving” until 2004. Its role is to act as a stock exchange for network-to-network advertising deals. The ECN part of the name, meaning Electronic Communication Network, is derived from financial stock markets.

Networks continue to deal directly with their own advertisers and their own publishers. The process will first try and match an advertiser’s demand to a publisher’s inventory within the same network. When advertising demand and publisher inventory within the first network are mismatched, AdECN steps in to broker a deal between different networks. The result is that advertisers get their adverts published, and publishers fill their inventory with paying adverts. The whole auction process takes place in 6-7ms, at the time the publisher’s page is viewed.

AdECN has been careful to make itself an ally of the networks, not a competitor to them:

  • It does not deal directly with advertisers or publishers – it has a distinct role in providing the infrastructure for the exchange.
  • Networks split the commission on the deals between them, just like stock brokers.
  • AdECN levies a flat fee, so is neutral to whoever wins or losses the auction.

The neutrality of AdECN is seen as their main competitive advantage over Yahoo and Google: AdECN isn’t an advertising network in its own right. [Although as described later, AdECN may simply be becoming the new breed of advertising network, in a marketplace where advertisers will increasingly deal directly with publishers. I did not get the chance to query this apparent contradiction.]

Contextual and Behavioral Data

Adverts can be targeted contextually or behaviorally:

  • Context considers simple variables such as time of day or location (typically the country viewer is resident in).
  • Behavior (or, behaviour, or “profile”) considers variables such as the age of the viewer and their search patterns.

Currently 95% of all targeting is contextual because it has historically been difficult to match behavioral information in a fast and ethical manner. In the next “3-5 years”, behavioral advertising will move to dominate 80% of online [display?] advertising.

AdECN capture a lot of data, which is increasingly the added value it can offer networks. By design it does not store data: Data is used only in the (near-instant) auction process. Individual networks/advertisers can bolt on their own “black boxes” to AdECN – bespoke software they design to utilise auction data so that their advertising spend is optimised. The most common use of black boxes is to split Cost per Click (CPC – advertiser pays when someone click the advert) and Cost per Action (CPA – advertiser pays when an action is completed, such as an enquiry form completed, or product sold).

Privacy remains a key issue. Self-regulation is seen as the way forward. This is based on not keeping personal data, and instead focusing on core questions like “what is the consumer going to buy?” The history of Gator (spyware installed which monitored browsing habits) shows that consumer pressure will eventually win over advertising network which don’t stick to reputable privacy practices.

In Hindsight

For the first two years of the venture, AdECN did not perform well. For an internet startup, two years is a long time. In the early years, AdECN’s team were “too abstract and too technical”. The software was eventually rewritten. Fortunately the venture’s backers were able to see the long-term potential. The lack of barriers to entry into the exchange did allow many networks to trial it, which allowed business to slowly build.

By 2004 they were “in the right place, at the right time”. They were bought by Microsoft. Bill Urschel couldn’t reveal specifics, but stated that there was “no b” in the price paid. His final round of investors received a x9.7 return over four months, so nobody was complaining. They sold “too early”, but in practice they had to sell: Similar (although William claims not actually exchanges) competitors Rightmedia and Doubleclick sold to Yahoo and Google respectively. It became inevitable that Microsoft had to buy an exchange.

The Future

The underlying market is expanding, and forecast to continue to grow. Critically:

  • Online advertising accounts for only 7% of total advertising spend, yet occupies more than 7% of consumers’ time: Advertisers are behind the trend, and will logically seek to catch up.
  • Display advertising (on publishers’ sites) is growing faster than search advertising (on sites such as Google search results).
  • With exchanges such as AdECN, display advertising now has the same data/targeting advantages search had 6-7 years ago. Real-time auctions and targetting have taken much longer.

The industry itself will like change, particularly what is meant by the term “ad network”: Advertising agencies can now deal with publishers directly, and use the exchange to handle excess supply or demand – there is no need for the old middlemen, the advertising networks.

The average CPM (Cost per Mile, where a mile is a thousand advert impressions) rates are likely to remain the same where already high (for example, rates around $25 will see little change). However, targeting will allow undersold inventory to be utilised much more effectively, so space sold closer to $0.25 will increase in value. As noted earlier, behavioral/profile targeting is likely to develop such that it dominates within 3-5 years.

Could exchanges move into the television and print advertising arena? Current systems could be improved, but the exchange really needs real-time auctions to flourish.