Web Advertising Basics: Understanding Ad Formats
By Michael Moncur (October 17, 2003)
When web sites started advertising a few years ago, banner ads were the most common format. Now there are a wide variety of ad formats, ranging from simple banners to animated characters that crawl across a page. This article is a basic introduction to the different ad formats available today.
Traditional ads are static—that is, they consist of an image within the layout of your page that is linked to a destination URL. This category includes the original banner ads as well as some more recent additions.
Banner (468 x 60)
The workhorse of web advertising is still the banner ad. This is the classic 468 x 60-pixel rectangle that adorns the top of many sites. While many users have developed a rectangular blind spot and the ability to ignore all but the most annoying banners, they are still one of the biggest money makers.
Leaderboard (728 x 90)
When banner ads first appeared, 800 x 600 was a typical screen resolution, and many users still used the VGA resolution of 640 x 480. Banner ads were designed to accommodate typical browser sizes of the day. Now, 800 x 600 is more of a minimum, so a larger banner has been introduced.
Leaderboards are slightly larger than banners and a bit harder to ignore, but still don't take over your page, and many respectable sites use them. You can usually use regular-size banners in the same space, so they are easy to work with.
Skyscraper (120 x 600 and 160 x 600)
As another attempt to get past users' banner blindness, vertical ads, known as skyscrapers, are becoming more commonplace. Since screen resolutions are higher, they can often fit into the right-hand side of a page without much trouble. This site uses 120 x 600 skyscraper ads, so you should see one to the right.
Cubes, Buttons, and Boxes
Over the years, several additional ad formats have been tried. While none of the following are widely supported by the big ad networks, and few ads are available when they are, you may wish to consider them if they fit into your layout:
See the IAB Standards page for a list of some of the less-common standardized formats.
While larger banners and vertical ads are harder to ignore, some advertisers demand a more assertive format. Thus, several types of intrusive ads—those that open a new window or use other technologies to appear on top of content—have been introduced.
Depending on who you ask, pop-ads are either the scourge of the Internet or an amazing revenue opportunity. Pop-up ads open in a new window, and you usually need to close them before you can view the page's content.
While pop-ups are often the highest-paid ad format, there is a cost: users are often annoyed. They may not visit your site again. Worse, many users have installed a pop-up blocker, software that prevents these ads from appearing. Major internet providers, such as Earthlink, and browsers, such as Mozilla, include built-in pop-up blockers.
Pop-under ads are a slightly more polite version of a pop-up. They still appear in a new window, but the window is minimized. Often the user doesn't notice it until they close the main browser window.
Pop-unders generally annoy users less than pop-ups, but when several of them pile up they can still cause trouble. I recommend displaying only one pop-under per user per day or per browser session.
Unfortunately, pop-unders are often lumped into the same category as pop-ups, and most pop-up blocker software will also prevent pop-unders from displaying. As the use of these programs increases, revenue from both types of pop ads will decrease.
Experienced users tend to quickly close a pop-up window without looking at it—or worse, use a pop-up blocker to prevent it from appearing at all. Layer ads attempt to solve this problem by taking a more in-your-face approach.
If you've seen an ad that slid across the page, bounced around, or slid down from a banner, you've seen a layer ad. If you're like me, you probably grumbled and left the site as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, if you have a dedicated audience that won't let a bit of obnoxiousness stand in their way of enjoying your site, these can be some of the highest-paying creatives.
As more and more visitors use pop-up blockers and advertisers demand more prominent ads, a new type of ad has emerged. Interstitials are full-page ads that appear when you click a link. You must then follow a link from there to get to the real destination page.
While this is a drastic measure, it is the one sure way to defeat pop-up blockers, and it gives advertisers the chance to display larger, better-looking ads, and they pay for the privilege. Current interstitials often include multiple-page displays or even full-motion video.
Interstitials have been used by large sites like Yahoo and Salon. However, if you don't have the reputation they have, you may have trouble getting visitors to put up with interstitial ads. I don't recommend interstitials for most content sites. However, if you are offering visitors something more than just content—a downloadable file, site membership or free service—an interstitial ad might be a small price to pay.
In the early days of the Web, everything was text—there were no graphics. While the Web has become more and more graphical, the latest trend in advertising is to take a step backwards to simple text ads.
Basic Text Ads
Many sites offer text ads, which typically consist of one or two lines of text and a link. Users seem more likely to click on these ads, and when they appear within content rather than at the top of the page in a banner-sized box, they do even better.
The real text ad revolution is in contextual ads. Google's AdSense program is the leader in this area. While AdSense ads appear in a box shaped like a banner or skyscraper, the ads they contain are chosen based on the content of the site where they appear.
AdSense ads are more tasteful and subtle than regular graphic ads, and yet they seem to get more response from visitors. Many sites that previously did not use advertising have jumped on the text ad bandwagon.
AdSense pays you for each ad click, so the content-targeting system works to your advantage. How much money you can make with this type of program depends on the type of site you run and the available ads.
To run a profitable content site, you need just the right mix of ads to make money while keeping the site usable and enjoyable to your audience. Exactly what this means depends on your audience—users of a gaming site, a literature study guide, and a technology news site would have wildly different ideas about what constitutes too much advertising.
To get the mix right, you need to listen to your users. Implement ad formats one at a time, and when you try a new ad format, start with a few minor pages. Wait a few days, listen to any complaints, and see whether your traffic decreases before going further. If advertising is done right, it will make you money and your visitors won't mind—they know it's keeping the site free.
(c) 2003-2005 by Michael Moncur. All rights reserved. No content may be reproduced without explicit consent.