Portal Peril

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
– Psalms 23:4

OK, perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic, but navigating a buy on a portal, search engine, or directory can seem a task of biblical proportions.

Keywords, category branches, run-of-site (ROS) buys, shopping placements, merchant boxes, text links, tiles, banners, buttons, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Indeed, by the time it’s all over, Dante’s Inferno might be a peaceful retreat from the frenzy of putting together one of these buys.

Yes, I see some of you now, stroking your chins like coffeehouse intellectuals and thinking, “Aren’t search engines, portals, and directories the same thing?”

Well, yes and no. Let me explain.

In the Beginning

Once we had just directories and search engines. Directories were the straightforward, if somewhat simplistic, hierarchical taxonomies put together by humans and logged and located with software. Yahoo, for instance, was and still is primarily a directory. (The name itself, according to lore, is an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.”)

Search engines, on the other hand, were unwieldy mechanisms that would automatically collate files from the Internet into categories through the use of bots and spiders. AltaVista is an example.

Over time, directories and search engines have taken on each other’s qualities, added content and services, and become portals.

No Exit

“Portal”: great name, that. But there’s a certain irony here, given that a portal signifies a doorway, something you move through. Yet on the web, portals are something that more often than not you get stuck in.

So, with all of that said, what does one have to confront when considering a media buy with any one of these properties?

For the advertisers looking to execute a straightforward media buy, there are three main types of inventory for sale on these kinds of properties: ROS, category/channel, and keyword.

Run-of-Site Inventory

ROS is the most abundant on these kinds of properties and can usually be purchased inexpensively. When you read about the obscenely huge number of portal page views, most of this is ROS inventory.

It is untargeted, and response rates for advertising running on this kind of inventory tend to be pretty anemic, but the cost per thousand impressions (CPMs) can be very low, which means your advertising can still yield an efficient cost per action.

And, of course, an ROS buy can be an inexpensive way to generate awareness. (I’ve heard that as much as 80 percent of portal inventory goes unsold, with positive impact on ROS costs.)

Whatever your goal, if you are considering this kind of inventory, try to negotiate the buy at the end of the month, when sellers are anxious to make their numbers. You can usually get a pretty good deal.

The Category/Channel Buy

Category, or channel, inventory is slightly more targeted than the ROS and thus comes at a higher premium. Are you selling cars? Buy a rotation in the automotive category. Are you selling toys? Try the family channel. That’s how you buy this kind of placement.

Depending on the popularity of the category or channel having the greatest relevance to your product or service, inventory can sometimes be tight.

I have purchased lots and lots of this kind of inventory in my time, and my campaigns have performed with varying degrees of success. So far, no clear rhyme or reason as to what will or will not perform. You just have to test it out.

Keyword Placement

Finally, there is keyword placement. This is the most highly targeted, hotly contested, and avidly coveted of all ad inventory in the entire online advertising universe.

Why that is should be obvious. Using keyword placement is like slipping an ad into the brain, right between the eyes, at the precise moment that brain is thinking of a particular product or service.

This sort of inventory, as many of you may know, is highly sought after and the asking prices are high, with little room for negotiation. The only way you might get a price break is if you purchased large volumes of inventory no one else was asking for.

In many categories, keyword inventory is locked up for a year at a time, making it nearly impossible for newcomers to get in on the action.

Onward and Upward

As you venture into the portal buy, keep in mind that all of the above can be purchased in a variety of ways. You can make use of geographic or demographic targeting. You might also test different placement options: in email, within personalized news, and/or on home pages.

So be strong! Placing yourself in portal peril can definitely pay off.

Related reading