Glimpse Into America Online Advertising Now Possible

With all of the numbers and statistics floating around about online advertising, one thing has always been missing: information about possibly the biggest online media company of all — America Online.

Because of the way AOL presents its ads — in its proprietary format on its online service — figuring out what’s going on there has always been a technical hurdle. But now, an ad measurement company called Leading Web Advertisers (LWA) believes it’s made the decisive leap, saying that its programmers have figured out how to decipher the “Rainman” code that AOL uses to put together its pages.

“Anybody who is in this business who hasn’t attempted it, you have to wonder what business they’re really in,” said Michael Kubin, co-chief executive officer of LWA. “You’d have to be a fool to miss AOL. There’s just too much money going to one place.”

But a competitor to Leading Web Advertisers, Jupiter Media Metrix’ AdRelevance, dismisses the importance of what LWA has accomplished, saying AdRelevance has done more than attempt to decipher the Rainman code.

“The issue is one of accuracy. Our engineers have been able to ‘crack’ the AOL service for the past 12 months,” said Marty Levin, executive vice president, sales and marketing for AdRelevance. “But we chose not to, because our clients have grown accustomed to the accuracy of a full value service that includes impressions and dollar spending, not just an ad clipping service of questionable accuracy — which is essentially what LWA has just launched with.”

At issue here is information that could be very useful to competitors to AOL. Who is advertising on the service? What kind of banners are they using? After all, knowing who is advertising on your competitor’s site is the first step to stealing away its clients. And with AOL on top in the traffic numbers — attracting 60,988 unique visitors a month, according to Media Metrix’ September numbers — the company is definitely the one to beat.

In addition, marketers want to know how their competitors are advertising on AOL. What creative components are they using? How often do they change them? How long does each campaign run? In what sections of AOL do the ads appear? How much are they spending?

This type of data has long been available for Web sites — including AOL Web sites — that code their pages in HTML, but ads coded in the proprietary format on AOL’s online service have not been typically included in reports by the ad measurement companies.

Leading Web Advertisers, which plans to offer the AOL numbers to its clients — for an extra charge — beginning later this week, hopes the data is a key differentiator from its competitors.

“It’s not a trivial problem, so I don’t think it’s quickly solvable. Do I think we’ll hold onto this forever ourselves? No. We don’t pretend to have the single person on the planet that can do this,” said Kubin. “Somebody else will do this, but, for the moment, it’s us. ”

Indeed, AdRelevance says it will fire back by launching its own service, if it sees a clamor in the industry.

“If the marketplace shows an interest in what LWA has offered for AOL as ‘good enough’ data, we will then launch with a variation of what LWA has, that will be held to the higher AdRelevance standards,” said Levin.

How accurate are the numbers? Even if the figures for “clickable” ads are correct, the Leading Web Advertisers methodology doesn’t capture sponsorships or co-branded sites — a very important form of advertising on AOL. And, neither AdRelevance nor LWA can promise that they’re painting a completely accurate picture of “clickable” Internet advertising.

“You can never get the full picture anywhere on the Web, I don’t care if it’s AOL or any other site. You can’t. The Web is not a magazine that’s printed on paper where you can just turn the pages and look at the ads,” said Kubin. “The Web is continually dynamic and changing and moving, and shifting, and ads are served under different conditions and circumstances, so there’s no way that anyone can have the full picture ever.”

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