IAC/InterActiveCorp is launching a contextual ad network to complement its existing search ad distribution network. It hopes the offering will become a viable alternative for publishers to Google's AdSense network.
The ads, which will be incorporated into its Ask Sponsored Listings (ASL) platform, will launch at the end of May on several IAC-owned properties, such as Match.com, Ticketmaster, Evite and Citysearch. Ads will also appear on a few trusted publisher sites, most likely starting with some of the 90 publishers that syndicate Ask.com search results and search ads.
Mid-sized publishers are able to sign up for the program now, and a self-service platform for smaller publishers is expected later this year.
"We're trying to solve the full equation for advertisers and publishers. Advertisers can expand their existing Ask Sponsored Listings campaigns with the same features, function, and control when they target the content network. For publishers, we've tried to differentiate it from what's out there. We've talked to lots of publishers, including some IAC brands, to get a sense of what they're looking for," said Paul Vallez, head of Ask.com's search marketing product division.
Ask.com is attempting to differentiate its offering by making it more transparent and user-friendly, Vallez said. For example, Ask.com will provide publishers with tools to tweak ads displayed on their sites to find a balance between ad relevance and page yield.
"We're going to offer a lot more levers to let publishers manage the monetization of their sites," he said.
A site like IAC's Match.com, which makes the vast majority of its revenues on transactions, can dial down the page yield to improve relevance of ads displayed. That will keep the focus on the user experience, instead of incremental revenue from ads, he said. That way, usability of the site is not impacted, and there will not be an adverse affect on its transaction revenue.
On the other hand, an ad-supported publisher's site can dial up the page yield to make the most ad revenue. Ads will still be relevant, but are more broadly matched to the site content.
Ask.com is targeting mid-tier publishers with this offering, since most of the "mega-publishers" are locked up in ad deals already, said James Speer, GM of search marketing at IAC Advertising Solutions. These publishers want transparency into the revenue sharing model, and understand the value of their inventory, he said.
Ask.com has generally been more transparent with its search ad distribution partners, Speer said. Most of those relationships include an established revenue share defined up front, rather than the usual "black box" approach taken by Google, he said.
The transparency and control extends to the advertiser side as well, he said, with separate bids for contextual ads and site blocking capabilities, for example.
Ask.com has built out its account management teams to help publishers make the most of the controls put in place for the new network. Advertisers who spend more than $5,000 a month have access to Ask.com's internal Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Services teams, while smaller publishers can benefit from the information Ask.com has published online.
The SEM Services teams help publishers adjust the page yield and relevance levers, customize the look and feel of ads, assert editorial control of ads and categorize pages for targeting.
The ASL program launchedin 2005, and was expanded last fall. It now includes more than 90 publisher partners showing ads from more than 30,000 advertisers. Ads are distributed in search results for sites like Lycos, Infospace, Mamma, Hakia and Eons.
Many of the ASL distribution partners also license Ask.com's organic search results, and many are also expected to join the contextual ad network as well, Speer said. The integrated approach appeals to many publishers and advertisers, who want to manage campaigns across multiple platforms from the same interface, he said. IAC has seen the benefit of having a single advertising solutions sales team that sells media, search, and direct ads on its sites, he said.
Google has dominated the contextual advertising space with its AdSense network, but many publishers are not happy with the level of transparency offered in the revenue-share, or the control over ads that appear. But until another ad network can produce results better than AdSense, it will continue to lead.
Yahoo launched its contextual ad product, the Yahoo Publisher Network, two years ago, though it remains in beta and produces mixed results. Other companies offering contextual ad networks include Miva, Marchex's IndustryBrains, ContextWeb and Quigo.
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