How to Evaluate Sites for Banner Purchases
Step One: Make sure the site offers remnant ads through Google. To find out, view the source code of a page and do a search for "googlead." If this appears anywhere, they're serving remnant ads through Google.
Step Two: Within your Google AdWords account, create a new campaign targeted just to the Display Network on "Relevant pages only on the placements and audiences I manage." Set a budget, create an ad group, upload your ads, set a Managed Placements Max CPC Bid, and add that site's domain name as a Managed Placement under the Networks tab.
Step Three: Don't just settle for testing that site. Wouldn't you really like to know how other similar sites are performing? Find more sites through Google's doubleclick ad planner. This site gives you a plethora of options. Two of the most valuable will be:
Step Four: Monitor and refine results like you would with your search campagins. Don't set everything up and go on autopilot. Keep checking in and see what's working and what's not working. Use conversion tracking and run daily placement reports to exclude sites, subdomains, and individual pages that aren't performing.
After a reasonable time period, you should have a pretty good idea of whether or not the site will be worthwhile for a direct banner buy or not.
Benefits & Drawbacks of the Display Network
Buying remnant ads through the Display Network may not offer a direct apples to apples comparison. For example, some ad sizes, positions, and pages or sections might not be available for the AdSense ads (the publisher's counterpart to the Display Network). Would a different type of ad in a better position offer better results? Are there certain times you may not be able to get any ads at all, such as on newspaper sites during the political season? Maybe.
AdWords may offer some benefits over direct banner advertising besides just cost and no commitment, depending on the publisher. For example, you can always elect when you want your ads to run down to the time and day. Plus, you get branding benefits essentially for free by not having to pay for non-clicked ads. This is especially handy when a site does auto-refreshes or double serves ads on the same page, counting against impressions on CPM buys.
A Note about Other Ad Networks
Most sites with significant traffic - and maybe even more so for non-corporate sites with low levels of traffic - offer some form of remnant advertising. They do not always sell those through Google, which is the third largest ad network in the United States behind AOL and Yahoo!. Google does carry an 87% reach according to comScore's December 2009 rankings - just 4% behind AOL.
Google's Display Network offers more transparency and site targeting options than the other large ad networks to self-service users. That's not to say you can't have success with the other networks - you definitely can, but for evaluating direct advertising buys, AdWords is pretty tough to beat. Plus, it's incredibly simple to set up and manage especially if you already have an AdWords account for search.
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