Search Engines, Portals, Directories – Oh My

“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

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

Keywords, category branches, ROS (run-of-site), shopping placements, merchant boxes, text links, tiles, banners, buttons… dogs and cats living together… utter Pandemonium! Indeed, by the time it’s all over, Dante’s capitol city in the seventh circle of Hell might be a peaceful retreat from the frenzy of putting together a portal or directory buy.

Yes, I see some of you now, stroking your chins like coffeehouse intellectuals. The first thing you are thinking is, ‘Aren’t search engines, portals, and directories all the same thing?’ The uncomplicated answer is ‘no.’ So, before I go on, let me clear that up first.

Back in the good old days, 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 word ‘Yahoo’ 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. Alta Vista is an example.

Though much easier to use today, a few years ago it was the pantheon of what an automated search device was like; a Gilliamesque socialist automaton delivering abstracts from a Ministry of Information found only in the story boards of Alan Moore.

Over time, both directories and search engines have taken on the qualities of one another, added content and services, and have become portals. Which is an interesting word, given that a portal is something you move through. Yet on the web, they are something to get stuck in. Both search engines and directories are also oftentimes portals.

Though sometimes you come across a Go Network, where what has happened is a search engine and a bunch of different content providers are all put under one roof to create a single media entity and form something like Disney’s uberportal.

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

For the advertisers looking to execute a vanilla media buy, there are three main types of inventory that is for sale on these kinds of properties: ROS (Run-of-site), Category/Channel, and keywords.

Run-of-Site Inventory

    ROS is the most abundant on these kinds of properties and can usually be purchased inexpensively. When you hear in the press or see Media Metrix information stating the obscenely huge number of pageviews the portals do, most of that would be your ROS inventory.

    I once read, and have heard in conversations at industry shindigs, that as much as 80 percent of a portal’s inventory goes unsold. That would be the ROS. It is untargeted, and response rates for advertising running on this kind of inventory tend to be pretty anemic, but the CPMs can be very low, still allowing for your advertising to yield an efficient cost-per-action. Or, it can be a really inexpensive way to generate awareness. Either way, 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.

Category/Channel Inventory

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

    Depending on the popularity of the category or channel having the greatest affinity for your product or service, inventory in these areas can sometimes be tight. But most often, there is something to be had. I have purchased lots and lots of this kind of inventory in my time, and have found 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 most coveted of all ad inventory in the entire online advertising universe.

    Why that is should be obvious. It is like slipping an ad into the brain, right between the eyes, at the precise moment that brain is turned towards thought of my product or service. It is a fabulous device with which an advertiser can tap latency uppermost in a person’s mind.

    This sort of inventory, as many of you may know, is terribly difficult to get at and the asking prices are high, with little hope of negotiating a better rate. 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.

All of the above can be purchased in a variety of ways, with geographic or demographic targeting; email and personalized news or home pages. But these here are the three main types of inventory and the tripod upon which portal ad inventory swings. Now you are prepared to go out into the world!

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” – Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, IV, 146

Related reading