New PortalAsks, Who Needs Ads?

One portal has found a way to beat the sluggish online ad climate: Don’t take ads… at least not the types of ads drawing complaints from Web users.

On Monday, sweepstakes portal iWon.com’s parent company launched an ad-free portal, MyWay.com. The portal resembles Yahoo with its customizable interface, full array of news, information and search, but MyWay.com comes without any banner, pop-up or pop-under ads. MyWay.com isn’t charging site users, either. Instead, the site’s revenue comes from the one interactive advertising sector showing strong growth: paid search.

With its search engine powered by Google, Irvington, N.Y.-based MyWay.com will rely on Google’s AdWords sponsored links to provide revenue. Daugherty said the site would add classifieds, real estate and travel listings to the mix over the next few months.

“We see this as a tremendous opportunity,” said MyWay.com Co-CEO Bill Daugherty. “We’ve got all the established partnerships and we see an opportunity, particularly as it relates to disenfranchised Yahoo users.”

Daugherty pointed to the increasingly ubiquitous pop-up and pop-under ads, which have led to a backlash from Web users. Pop-ups have featured prominently in the sparring between AOL and MSN in their ISP war: AOL has touted the fact that that AOL 8.0 will not take third-party pop-up ads. Another ISP, EarthLink, has offered users free pop-up-killing software, while iVillage announced this summer that it would stop serving third-party pop-ups in an effort to appease fed-up users.

“We’ve done the research,” Daugherty said. “This is going to attract Yahoo users.”

While intrusive ads have gotten a bad rap, targeted advertising through paid search listings has been a silver lining in the otherwise dark cloud hanging over the Internet ad industry. Overture , the leader in the space, recently announced that users of its affiliate sites had clicked on 500 million paid search results in the third quarter. Those clicks equal revenues, both for the likes of Overture, Google, and LookSmart and their distribution partners.

Daugherty is not new to trying to the portal game. Along with Jonas Steinman, he launched iWon.com in 1999, after gaining $200 million in backing from CBS and investors like Bain Capital and JP Morgan Partners, and engineering a “secret” launch that was documented by Nightline.

In December 2001, iWon.com added to its portal assets by scooping up the remnants of early portal star Excite for just $10 million, taking on the Excite name and operating the Excite.com portal.

Like MyWay.com, iWon.com promised to pick off Yahoo users by combining all the functions of Yahoo with a gimmick — in iWon’s case a sweepstakes in which visitors accrued jackpot entries for each page visited.

The site gives away $15,000 per week, with an annual $1 million grand prize — a bit less than it intended before the economic downturn. Still, since its founding three and half years ago, iWon.com users have won $54 million.

IWon.com’s sweepstakes gimmick enabled it to attract a mass audience quickly, but it hasn’t kept up with the big shots. According to Nielsen/Net Ratings, the site had 7.5 million unique visitors last month, paling in comparison to portal giants like Yahoo and MSN, which both had over 75 million visitors in September.

Unlike iWon.com, which launched with a $70 million ad campaign, Daugherty said scale was not necessary for MyWay.com to turn a profit, thanks to an easily transferable technology infrastructure and partnerships with content partners in place. Daugherty said MyWay.com would be profitable from the get-go.

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