Paid Placement Alternatives to Overture and Google

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, Boston, MA, March 4-6, 2003.

In an online advertising world dominated by 900-pound gorillas Overture and Google AdWords, what do second-tier, aka alternative, pay-for-placement engines such as Ah-Ha, FindWhat and Search123 bring to the party?

Additional traffic at reasonable incremental cost, according to a first-time panel on the topic at SES Boston. Representatives from those three pay-per-click (PPC) engines described their programs and fielded questions to help the audience discover “all the PPCs you can be on” in the words of moderator Danny Sullivan.

Panelists from alternative PPC’s included Dan Ballister, Vice President of Sales for, Robert Barnes, Vice president for Business Development at Ah-Ha, James Beriker, President of Search123, and Adam Soroca, Terra Lycos. On hand to provide advertiser perspective were Kevin lee, CEO of Did It and Andrew Goodman of Page Zero Media.

Golden Nuggets of ROI

Panelists and audience agreed that second tier PPC networks could indeed increase revenues, as long as results were monitored by return on investment. As Did-It’s Lee summed it up, “We all know best practices in PPC are to go very broad and test everything to find the golden nuggets of ROI.” He added that the smaller players appear get more inventive to attract business.

It was no surprise to find the focus on ROI that pervaded most SES sessions in Boston clearly evident in this one. Tracking ROI remains a core technique for assessing value and making informed campaign decisions, panelists agreed. Advertisers need to know how to calculate their return on investment and compare pay-for-placement engines by ROI results.

Getting to Know the Alternatives

Search123 is privately held, with 6,000 advertisers and 100 million searches per month over 300 distinct channels. Launching service in October 2000, Search123 in April 2002, acquired from Net Zero, gaining a proprietary search technology developed by the linguistics department at Brown University. Their use of the backend to help advertisers target keywords for their audience sets them apart, says Beriker, as well as competitive prices. “We’re another avenue to get targeted leads to your site.”

Ah-Ha serves one billion searches per month, and advertisers range from small, spending from $25 per month, to medium at $500 – $1000 per month. “Even the small advertisers have access to an account manager,” said Barnes, with other bells and whistles such as logo links and ROI analysis for the larger advertisers.

Terra Lycos “In-Site” provides advertising on an ad bar along the right hand side of Lycos search results and also provides paid listings for FindWhat. “Think of us as a tier-one network without high pay-per-click cost,” said Soroca.

FindWhat serves it’s own 22,000 advertisers, ringing up one million clicks per day The SES audience heard advance notice of about FindWhat’s new “Ad Analyzer” campaign management tool, later released on April 17. “We try to keep this process as simple as we can,” said Ballister, “to make it easy for advertisers to manage their campaigns.”

Top Audience Concerns Quality and Choice

The audience had many questions for the panel, focusing on issues such as traffic quality, opt-out distribution, and auto-bidding programs and capabilities.

“We eat, sleep and drink traffic quality,” remarked Ah-Ha’s Barnes. “The focus has to be on ROI and conversion. Does the traffic convert from the price point paid? The Ah-Ha approach is to provide the best opportunity for the merchant,” he said. “The value to the advertiser is the most important value.”

Ballister added that FindWhat engages in “rigorous testing all the time, looking for better ways to drive better traffic, testing system integrity and specific ROI.”

More than one question voiced advertisers’ desire to be able to pick and choose sites within distribution networks. Lee pointed out ROI tracking has shown “diehard evidence for a lot of clients to opt out of some of the networks.”

Beriker responded that providing such an option is functionally difficult for the size of Seearch123’s network, which he described as 300 boxes. “We manage the issue by ROI,” he explained, “In an auction environment prices reflect the value to advertisers.” Barnes said that some selection is possible at Ah-Ha, but most advertisers use the whole network. FindWhat is building a way to segment distribution, according to Ballister.

When questioned as to whether spy-ware is delivered within their individual networks, panelists’ answers ranged from a flat “No spy-ware” from Search123’s Beriker, to Ah-Ha’s case-by-case approach based on whether users are given a choice. On the matter of fraudulent traffic, all panelist were adamant about their diligent efforts to track down and eliminate illegitimate clicks.

Questions and comments on auto-bidding in the major media gave the panelists a chance to comment, and differentiate their products. Defending proxy bidding that publishes actual bids, called publishing maximum bids “unfair to advertisers.” Barnes questions whether auto-bidding added value for advertisers or the engines, appearing to be “designed to drive click-through revenue up.”

Goodman dismissed auto-bidding as a new level of game playing and cautioned “we shouldn’t get caught up in it.” “Better to understand your ROI and make informed decisions, either manually or using a tool,” added Lee. Soroca advocated advertiser choice whether to activate their own bids manually or let auto-bidding “make it happen.”

To great applause, one audience member called for “a tool that will work to the best interest of advertisers, not PPC’s”. Commenting that Overture’s tool makes it difficult to bring bids back down, moderator Sullivan framed the opportunity before the panelists’ companies. “Alternative PPC’s should offer alternative features,” he said. “We’ll make you rich if you make it work for us.”

Anne Kennedy is Managing partner of Beyond Ink, search engine marketing consultants based in Portland Maine, and publishers of online digest

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