Thanks! You’ve just proven that online advertising works

You could understand why someone mired in contentious standards development might call upon a higher power, but it’s rare to hear someone connected to the IT industry invoke one publicly.

According to published reports, however, Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) interim chief Greg Stuart

believes the online advertising standards to resolve publisher-advertiser disputes the group released this week were sent from up above. “”We’re answering to God on this one,”” he said, “”not to individual parties”” like Web publishers and advertisers.

Good thing — otherwise he’d probably be praying for mercy by now. Stuart and his colleagues have been busy in the past year fending off the backlash that has erupted in the once-promising world of online advertising.

As in many other industries, advertising relished the idea of the Internet in the 1990s because it was an ubiquitous, timely and interactive medium in which to promote their clients. Their attitude soured — and ad sales slumped — once the complexities of tracking the ads began to emerge. That’s why the IAB’s work is important; it could become the bellwether for how the Internet is perceived as a branding vehicle.

The standards include the idea that advertisers and publishers should ignore spiders and ‘bots, software tools that scour the Internet on behalf of search engines. According to Stuart, this accounts for anywhere between five to 10 per cent of the total Web traffic on the Internet. That’s not an enormous number, but it’s high enough to trigger wrangling and disputes with media buyers.

The IAB is also urging Web publishers to become “”cache busters,”” making sure readers don’t bypass ads in order to make pages load more quickly. This is also a common-sense sort of rule, and one that the industry would have moved towards anyway.

The standards, Stuart admitted, are not really enforceable. They are rules of thumb for an industry that is still trying to figure out how this medium works without moving so slowly that new revenue streams dry up altogether. So far, unfortunately, they only scratch the surface. The deeper, trickier issues revolve around liability over improperly delivered ads (or sites which have been hacked, and ads are replaced with porn, for example). We are a long way from coming to any kind of consensus here.

Given that ITBusiness.ca is a Web publisher and the company I work for has a vested interest in this debate, I should probably admit that my own experiences have left me as frustrated as anyone else. When I received my first statistics report on our site’s traffic, I was bombarded with figures: There were ad impressions, page impressions, unique users and total visits. I wanted to know the bottom line, until I learned that it depends on who you’re talking to, and what they consider important. (Note to public relations professionals: I don’t tell you our traffic because I have no control over how your clients interpret that data. We tell our advertisers, but only when the numbers can be put in the appropriate context.)

There will never be any resolution on online advertising practices until the industry stops behaving as though it is comparable with traditional print-based media. A company advertising in a newspaper can know how many people received the paper through circulation figures, but they won’t know how many people turned to the page with the ad except through focus-group research. Online advertising causes headaches because measuring it can be more scientific. Though the technology can cause errors, it is possible to track how many people clicked on each story, and how long that story was displayed. The content — in this case, the ad — is also handled much differently, often operating from a server outside the publisher’s control. Liability over those servers and the ads displayed from them cannot therefore be placed solely upon publishers.

Online advertising could still live up to expectations, but managing it will be more work than we have ever experienced. So be it. No one participates in the new economy for free.

sschick@plesman.com

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