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Implementing ad software on your site, Part 1

Learn the proper techniques for selecting and evaluating an ad solution

May  1999
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More and more sites use ad software to manage ads on their pages and generate revenue. Webmasters are often tasked with accommodating these ads on their pages and also maintaining the software. This month Allen takes you through the ins and outs of picking and evaluating ad software. Next month, he'll address the implementation and exploitation of the system. (2,200 words)

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No doubt about it: The Internet has completely integrated itself into the mainstream. You can't open a magazine, read a paper, or watch the news these days without hearing about some new Internet company going public and raking in the big bucks as its stock prices soar. Companies that haven't even shown a profit often experience a terrific showing with their initial public offerings (IPO).

Once the IPO has taken place, the funds are there to purchase software and hardware, staff departments, and give the company a real shot at success. But what then? A company (even an Internet company) can't survive on its IPO forever. How do these new-generation companies stay afloat? Advertising, of course. Whether the site provides a service or product, almost all successful sites create revenue by selling ad space. And how are these ads maintained and managed on a site? Ad software.

So what does this mean to you? As a Webmaster you're often called upon for input in the decision-making process. Dealing with ads may not be terribly high on the list of things you love about your job, but being proactive may save you a lot of headaches in the long run. Understanding how the software works and interacts with your site can give you insight on how you will have to accommodate it in the pages you design. Webmasters are constantly working on the latest and greatest version of their sites, and this insight can be very instrumental in your design.

In this month's column, we're going to show you how to pick the right ad solution for your site and evaluate the software package you choose. We'll touch on the many considerations you'll undertake when choosing the software that fits your needs, guiding you toward the right questions to ask and the answers you should expect. We'll also give you tips to ensure your company purchases the best package for your site's structure.

Picking your ad solution
The first step in picking your ad solution, and probably the lengthiest one, is making a few decisions. You have to determine the depth of advertising your site will have, who is going to control it, and when it should be in place. You'll also make the critical decision of whether you'll be building a homegrown system, subscribing to a service, or purchasing a high-powered software suite to handle your needs. Most of these are very strategic decisions, but understanding the process and making the right decision up front will save you time in the long run.

The first place you need to offer input is on the system itself. Who better to discuss the site and its future direction than the Webmaster? Is your site so large and well-traveled that the targeting and reporting of the system must be at a very granular level? Or, is your goal simply to place some ads on your pages (a process that won't make many demands on the system)? Presenting your site in some kind of hierarchical or categorized format often helps the VPs in making the decision about what to buy. As the Webmaster, it's your job to convey the modeled approach you've taken with your site so the software will plug right in. Helping the VPs make the decision up front will help you later on, when you have to implement it.

You should also consider where you want to be 6 months, 12 months, even 18 months from now. Are you redesigning the site and launching it soon? Are you going to allow advertisers the ability to put forms, Java applets, JavaScript, or other "rich media" ads on your pages? What kind of content restrictions do you have on the site? Are there any HTML tags that you absolutely prohibit because of browser bugs or issues?

All of this information should be contained in a list of requirements for the system from your perspective. Having this as a resource, your CTO or equivalent can decide whether to build the system, subscribe to one, or purchase software. The decision rests on how long the company has been in business and where the current ad solution stands (if one exists).

As the Webmaster, you should focus on how many changes will need to take place when you switch solutions and how the ad calls will affect your pages. Changing solutions often means retagging, and different ad calls may affect how your pages are rendered by the browser or processed by your Web server. In either case, you don't want to be caught in the middle of changing the whole site in a very short amount of time.

While many companies begin with a homegrown system, you will most likely find this approach to be unmanageable. Having to maintain code, add enhancements, and fix bugs is often too much work even for developer-rich companies. If your company is just getting started in the ad space, I recommend that you start with a service, purchasing software after the site outgrows it. For this reason, the next section will focus on how to approach a situation once you've decided to subscribe to a service or purchase software.


Questions to ask about your ad solution
Once your company has decided which kind of system it will implement, it's time to call in a few companies and evaluate their ad solutions. There are several considerations here, and understanding each one will help you perform the appropriate testing of the system.

First, it's important to understand the component options the system offers. All systems employ the client/server model to some extent; the client requests ads from a server or engine. You want to know the different types of clients you can use because sites do change. One week you may by using a Netscape Web server with an NSAPI client installed, and next week you may be using Apache. What are your options here? More than likely, you helped make the decision to move to Apache, so you had better be sure that you didn't break the ad-serving schema in doing so. Is there an Apache module to perform the same functionality as the NSAPI client? Does it mean you have to retag any pages? Knowing the software, even at this high level, will help you make responsible decisions.

You should also understand how the system really works. How does it request ads, determine which ones it will show, and return them? Does a server-side object such as a Web server filter or an ActiveX control request the ads, or does a browser that calls the client via a URL initiate requests? What kind of code, HTML, or syntax are you going to have to put on your pages to call for ads?

How versatile are the browser-invoked clients? Do they take advantage of newer HTML tags, such as <IFRAME> or <ILAYER>, which have the ability to call external-source HTML files, giving you the ability to serve rich media ads via a URL? Does this affect the performance of your pages being rendered? Is there anything you can do to improve this performance?

And what happens when various components go down? What failover methods does the software have in place? What happens if you lose your client? What about an engine, or a database? Does the system handle these incidents gracefully, or do they simply die and become inoperable? The big question, though, is this: How do times of failure affect your pages?

Obtaining the answers to these questions can go a long way toward smooth system implementation and maintenance.

Evaluating your solution
The evaluation period is probably the most important period in the decision-making process. Now that your company has discussed your needs with several vendors, your company should pick two or three solutions to evaluate in real-world scenarios.

Encourage the decision makers at your firm to request an onsite representative from each vendor to install and configure the evaluation version of the software, and set it up in a manner that reflects the way you will use it. Be active during this part of the process. See how responsive the company is to your needs in setting up this test environment. Was the process smooth and efficient, or not?

Once the software is in place, it's time to set up a test plan. These ads will affect your pages, so you want to test the aspects that are important to you. Because performance is a big factor, you should test for the number of ads per second the system can hold, and how long the system can run when maxed out. Are their any bottlenecks you may come across as your site grows? How scalable is the system when you hit these limits?

Once you have a test plan in place, evaluate the software. In addition to performance, consider day-to-day maintenance, customer support by the company, scalability, reliability, and failover measures. Talk to other customers who use the software and find out what they think of it and customer support. You should question companies that have models similar to yours. It doesn't do much good to talk to a search engine company about its installation if you won't be using keyword searches as part of your implementation.

Another thing to consider is extended functionality, including the ability to do geotargeting (targeting by geography), a technique that is just now beginning to be exploited by advertisers. As you might imagine, geotargeting utilizes a database of IP addresses and their geographical locations. When working with the software vendor, be sure to ask how often its database is updated and if it's possible to update the database without updating the software.

A final consideration is the ability of the software to target ads based on user profiles. This is very new to the Internet world, but truly taps the power of using an ad system. Think of watching TV and only seeing commercials that you're interested in -- not those silly ones that make you want to shoot the TV. It's a fact that most people ignore ads on pages. But what if you were able to target the ad so appropriately that it almost became an enhancement to your site -- a form of content. Like every other component of your page, the ad becomes an integral part of having a nicely designed site as well as appropriately targeted content. This could increase the overall value of your site.

Many sites and Webmasters view ads as intrusive and annoying. It's our job to move past this perception. Creating an ad system and targeting ads appropriately should be one of the biggest and most interesting challenges you undertake. Your goal is to get 5 out of 100 people to click on that 468 x 60 spot. That may not sound like much of a challenge, but the industry average for ad click-throughs is approximately 1 percent to 2 percent. It's time for you to rise to the challenge.

Next month, we'll tackle the actual implementation of an ad system. Stay tuned!

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About the author
Allen WykeR. Allen Wyke has developed intranet pages and Internet sites for several leading companies and often speaks on the topic of HTML. His writing credentials include coauthoring Pure JavaScript, The Perl 5 Programmer's Reference, The Official Netscape Navigator 4 Book, as well as contributing to The HTML 4 Programmer's Reference and HTML Publishing for the Internet, Second Edition.

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