Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 2 February 2001
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Quint's Online
Blazing Some New Advertising Trails
Online services can no longer pass up the benefits of running ads
by Barbara Quint

Is there anyone else out there besides me who loves those two classic comics, Laurel and Hardy? I knew it! Sons of the desert, unite! We have nothing to lose but our gloom.

Speaking of the desert, I recall one sequence where the boys were in the French Foreign Legion marching along in lock step at the end of a long line of soldiers, clad in those droopy tailcoats with crossed white bandoliers and clutching long, heavy rifles in their hands. Marching, marching, marching through the hot desert. Marching, marching, marching, one foot after another. Marching, marching, marching ... Then Oliver looks up and--lo and behold--he and Stanley are all alone and have been, apparently, for some time, since nowhere across the flat desert expanse can they see any sign of the other Legionnaires. Of course, we in the giggling audience knew they were alone ever since we saw the column take the fork to the right while the boys just kept their eyes on their feet and marched straight ahead into oblivion.

The error began when they kept following a course that others no longer followed. Somehow that image keeps recurring when I look at traditional information establishments trying to survive in a Web world. But perhaps the answer lies in using more paths--either blazing new ones or trying out well-mapped trails they have never trod before.

How about commercialization? Why shouldn't traditional online services carry advertising? Whoa. Whoa. I can hear the protests from my colleagues. "The money I pay for a commercial online search and you expect me to have to read some stupid ads?" Well, in the olden days, that protest may have had some merit, but nowadays every professional searcher sees ads on their search results all the time, mainly because we all use Web sources that depend on ad revenue to support free or low-cost service. When database aggregators license their data to Net newbies, as Gale Group has with a chunk of its holdings on LookSmart's FindArticles.com service, the content appears with advertisements. LookSmart depends on advertising revenue. But the content also appears for free.

Sometimes the presence of data on a site in itself constitutes an advertising milieu. For example, Factiva licenses data produced by its parents, Dow Jones and Reuters, to outside Web sites, sometimes down to the individual article level. LEXIS-NEXIS' Veracity (formerly Tell Me More) service offers to set up flows of data for fixed monthly fees, tapping into thousands of its full-text titles. What happens when this outside data arrives at a commercial site? It usually serves to reproduce all the friendly descriptions from favorable product reviews or complimentary financial analyses of the company, or to describe all the wonders of a new industry and the dot-com owner's place in that industry. As far as users are concerned, any form of promotion is a form of commercial advertising.

Of course, most traditional services promote themselves automatically by putting their names on the search screens and the printed or downloaded results. In the past, even purist intermediary searchers have included such identification in search results transmitted to clients, if only because it indicated the source of the data--a bibliographic must. But most of the purists died out in the Second Millennium. And one wonders why commercial online services keep their ads so subtle these days. Most of them have end-user online systems to sell, but they don't seem to use the presentation of search results (delivered by professional searchers) to promote their end-user services. Factiva, for example, might want to carry ads for its Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition (WSJIE) on search results produced over Dow Jones Interactive. Of course, I can never keep all the bureaucratic layers straight in these complex joint ventures. But even if WSJIE, like dowjones.com, doesn't belong in the Factiva family of services, so what? In fact, even better. It's a great way to get more money from one of your parents by selling them ad space.

Everybody's chasing the Internet advertising dollar. Articles in the business press bemoan its decline, but if you look a little closer, you will see that the "decline" just reflects the fact that 2000 was the first year in several that the annual increase in Internet advertising dropped below 100 percent. Poor baby! Advertisers are in a quandary. Studies show that homes with Internet access record diminished TV usage. If the most popular of mass media can't hold eyeballs against the Internet, then advertisers must chase those eyeballs onto the Net. And the Net, of course, offers some advantages to advertisers in its ability to target user interests dynamically.

The angle that traditional online services might take in reaching for Net advertising dollars would probably be that all their users/readers already have their wallets out. If people are willing to pay for information, they're probably willing to pay for something else as well.

One concern does arise. Would the publishers that feed their content to full-text aggregators resent those partners becoming new competitors for advertising dollars? Perhaps some partnerships could be worked out. Right now, the process of feeding content to full-text aggregators automatically strips out all the advertising the publisher might carry in their own presentations of the content. Sad to say, the process usually also strips out supplementary graphics, like tables and charts andpictures, and sometimes, even sidebars of text. But if one could offer to include all that material, users would probably be happyto endure advertisements that went along with it. So aggregators could promise publishers that their advertisers would get wider distribution. In return, the publishers might not mind when aggregators added some of their own advertising.

But the database aggregators should probably make sure that they get that option in writing fairly quickly. Otherwise they may find themselves having given away a bargaining chip for nothing. In case no one noticed the move toward offering full-image articles, as well as full text, it also produces online results that include advertising content. Last month, Bell & Howell Information and Learning (BHIL) announced that it would be digitizing the full century and a half backfiles of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Users will beable to designate articles and receive clips that include "jumps" from one page to another. They can also designate full pages, where they can zoom around to look at charts and ads and whatever appears. BHIL will index pages at a whole new level of specificity--stock quotes, weather, advertisements. Advertisements!

The problem with advertisements shown as historical artifacts is that you can't get any more money from advertisers for presenting them. But what if BHIL followed up on the advertisers' names and offered to attach current ads to presentations of results? Not for every ad, of course. Sales on clothing would seem to date quickly, but maybe not. What about some creative advertising? "See what your mother wore when she shopped at Bloomies. Come on down and let us dress you, too." To carry off any kind of targeted advertising, however, BHIL needs to start inventorying ad content and matching it with current advertisers now at the start of the digitizing process. In fact, full-text aggregators and search services might develop a service to update ads within online content and market it with the publishers.
 

No, No, No
Just a few warnings before you start. Try not to get weird with ads. Even the mighty can get kind of loopy when it comes to the new arena of Internet advertising. Each day at dawn I arise to my daily perusal of The New York Times--the home page, of course. Only a screwball would buy The Times in print when the online version is so vastly superior in every way--a fact I keep trying to explain to the telemarketers who call annually to try to sell me a print subscription. Over the last couple of months, however, The Times has found a new way to increase its advertising revenue. It now splits articles into multiple screens, forcing you to click through them to read the whole article and, with every screen, a new set ofads. Cognoscenti learn quickly to click on the tiny letters reading "Single-Page Format," but even that means adding another click just to read one article. It's a little annoying, but the "price" still makes it an unbeatable deal.

The weirdness comes from where The Times places its new online advertisements. They all seem to fall over on the right side of the screen in parallel with the articles. Sort of a Modigliani approach to ad placement--long and narrow. However, since my browser setup works inside a window without maximizing to take up the whole screen space, I barely notice the ads. Only general text shifts or changing color schemes ever catch my eye. Hardly enough to get me to maximize the screen just to read an ad. If it's not on the top or the bottom, I'm afraid a lot of advertisements just float away.

Speaking of floating away, here's another hint. Hold your ads throughout the session. This may come as a big shock, but lots of people don't actually go online to read theads. They come to read the articles. So if we notice an ad while we're reading an article, we may go onto another article before we decide to take a closer look at the ad. First we do what we came to do--read articles--and then we do something else--review interesting ads. But, lo and behold, when we back up to the previous article, the ad has changed. Well, easy come, easy go. It probably wasn'tinteresting anyway. Note to self: Don't bother chasing ads on this service. Ahem!

Speaking of ahems, one very serious matter: Never, never let the advertisements interfere with your content. However you lay the ads out, they must always look different and stand out from the editorial content. This holds true regardless of whether you're charging for it or not, though, one must admit, there seems to be little one can do to influence a freebie service. LookSmart,for example, offers an evaluated Web site directory service that was, before it decimated its staff, apparently a good one. But the site has started including advertisement-supported citations as the first items reported on its pages. And the advertiser contributions look just like the "real" answers. It's one thing for Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com to promise in a little box to the side with their logo on it that they have a book to answer each and every query. (Here's a bit of fun you can try: Put in the name of a favorite relative or your dog and download the image that claims books were written about them.) What is not acceptable is merging the ads with the content so that the user has to dig to tell one from another.

Frankly, I have never understood this kind of deceptive strategy. But then I have never understood spam either. If someone's really interested in buying a product, they'll want to buy it from someone who looks competent and solid. Trying to trick people into looking at a product they don't want to see just makes the seller look desperate and untrustworthy. The downside of the Internet's ability to target advertising is that failure to target properly may prove counterproductive.

As for the protests one has heard in the past from professional searchers, well, I bet they'll no longer ring so loud now that everyone is using ad-supported Web sources. In any case, the ability to mine end-user pockets would seem to be an opportunity traditional online services can no longer afford to pass up.

Information professionals themselves may face advertising channels. The other day I was invited to participate in a computer conference by a pal from a major library services vendor. For 2 days, at hourly intervals, experts came on board with sets of digital slides and remarks covering an innovative new area of online library service. In a futile attempt to avoid one more call away from my duty to get out another issue of Searcher, I told my compadre that I couldn't prepare enough material to last an hour. But he assured me that I only needed 15 minutes worth--which I assumed meant 30 minutes (he's such a finagler). The rest was Q&A. Not quite all the rest. Turns out that every 2 hours, he took 15 minutes to present his company's product offering.

Some 200­250 people signed in over the 2-day period; about 45 were at my session.And what started them off? An online infomercial! Sheesh. Well, it only cost themsome time. They could always zone out for the commercial portion. They still got a lot of high-level information without paying for airfare, hotels, taxis, or conference fees--and they didn't have to don shoes or pantyhose.

It's a deal.
 
 

Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Searcher, co-editor with Paula J. Hane for NewsBreaks, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.

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