Is Google Building a Secret Display Ad Network?

The blogosphere is buzzing about Google’s “Top Secret” display ad network. John Chow, who runs the high-traffic site The Tech Zone, said he’s joined an elite, invitation-only network of sites showing Google’s image ads, and that sites in that network are able to negotiate better CPM rates from Google.

According to a Google spokesperson, there’s nothing to see here: “We’re not testing or developing a new ad network. The existing display advertising network has been available for over 2 years.”

Google has sold contextually targeted display ads on its network since early 2004, and began offering them as part of its site targeting program in the U.S. in April 2005. They certainly talked about display ads again a year ago, when they announced as part of the deal with AOL that AOL’s sales force would be selling some display ads for Google. They’ve also been testing rich media ads since January, and video ads since May. Any publisher in the AdSense network has the option of enabling display and video ads on their sites.

Google is undoubtedly fond of keeping secrets, but the fact that they’re selling display ads is not one of them. They’ve been trying to get the word out to brand advertisers that these ads are available for a long time.

The more significant part of this, which Google is keeping close to their vest, is whether certain publishers are being hand-picked for a group of sites that can be targeted by advertisers, and whether those publishers are able to negotiate better CPM rates than others.

When questioned on that topic, the spokesperson replied: “We are always exploring ways to offer advertisers and publishers more flexibility and control over ad inventory, but don’t have anything specific to announce at this time.”

Which probably means they are working on some sort of “preferred publisher” level that will allay persistent advertiser fears of letting their ads show up on low-quality sites. Of course, this option will carry a premium, which Google appears to be willing to share with the high-quality sites.

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