Ask Jeeves Bans Banners

The much-maligned banner ad was further maligned Monday, when search engine Ask Jeeves announced its Ask.com site would no longer carry banners, instead relying on targeted ads and paid listings.

As of the beginning of the year, the Emeryville, Calif-based company has not accepted banner ad placements, winnowing its advertising units to two: a targeted “branded response” graphic ad tied to user queries and text-based paid-listings generated through its partnership with Google.

The decision to officially banish the banner came after the company determined the demand for banner ads (and the revenues they generated) did not justify the interference they had with the user experience, according to Steve Berkowitz, president of Ask Jeeves’ Web properties.

“We have two sets of constituents: we have our users and our advertisers,” he said. “From a user perspective, banners put a lot of the results lower. And as an advertising vehicle, they’ve kind of lost their luster, to be polite about it.”

Ask Jeeves’ move away from intrusive advertising began in October, when it banished pop-up ads from its site. But it isn’t the only player following Google’s lead to offer a user-friendly interface that relies on contextual advertising. Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, who has always been outspoken against intrusiveness, once even advised other publisher to “stop scaring users.”

In November, search pioneer Alta Vista re-launched its site with a pared-down look and approach quite similar to Ask Jeeves’. In lieu of banner ads and skyscrapers, Alta Vista relies on targeted ads and paid listings. Earlier that month, the owners of portals iWon.com and Excite launched MyWay.com, billed as an ad-free alternative to Yahoo. The site eschews banners and skyscrapers for paid listings and classified ads.

The banner ad’s long, tortured history stretches back to 1994, when it quickly established itself as the de facto ad-unit standard of the Internet. However, once the fortunes of the online advertising industry plummeted in 2000, the reputation of the banner went south too. In the third quarter, banner ads made up 32 percent of ad units, down from 36 percent a year earlier, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). Last month, the IAB more or less confirmed the banner’s slow demise, rolling out a suite of ad-unit standards that did not include the banner.

Berkowitz said the company began phasing out the banner ad in the fourth quarter, when it stopped selling the unit.

“It was a poor performing unit, and it was time to move on,” he said.

Moving on means pushing more branded response units, which Ask Jeeves boasts has click rates as high as 25 percent, against banner ads traditional 1 to 2 percent.

Ask Jeeves has struggled to keep up in the search space, oscillating between competing with portal giants, Yahoo and MSN, and focusing on providing search services with its Teoma technology. Yahoo’s decision last month to buy Inktomi for $235 million led one industry analyst to say the move to bringing search technologies in-house would make Ask Jeeves an attractive property to other mega-portals.

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