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Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Earn big bucks with your Web site

Cold hard cash is just a tag away when you start advertising on your Web site

September  1996
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Site advertising has shifted from being available only to a few big players to appearing on the smallest site. Add an ad to your site and start making money! (1,700 words)

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In the beginning, the Web was a pure incarnation of the traditional Internet: a free flow of information among volunteers who were happy to be part of the latest cool thing to come over the wire. Then companies joined the act, using the Web for marketing and promotion. Traditional media outlets caught on quickly, offering content interlaced with their traditional revenue source: advertisements. Now, advertising is rampant on the Web, popping up in the form of banners and inset images on all sorts of sites.

While we Internet purists may bemoan this intrusion into our once pristine virtual world, it is a cold hard fact of the real world that quality content is not free, and that someone must pay the freight to deliver it to your browser. An increasing number of sites, like the one your are visiting right now, must deliver content and turn a profit for their investors. Advertising is the only way to accomplish that task without asking readers for subscription fees.

Once we purists get over this slap in the face and recognize that advertising is a viable way to generate revenue from a Web site, we have only one question: "How do we get in on the deal?"

Advertising 101
Advertising is simple. Just follow these easy steps:

  1. Create something that people want to look at, like a Web site.
  2. Find someone with a product to sell.
  3. Convince them that people looking at your site will want to buy their product.
  4. Convince them that placing an ad on your site will help them sell more product.
  5. Convince them to give you money in return for placing that ad.

Piece of cake! Most of us have already finished step one. Accomplishing steps two through five should be no big deal, right?

Wrong. The nuts and bolts of advertising, making customer calls, building up a portfolio, executing contracts, and designing ads are completely beyond most, if not all, Webmasters. Left to our own devices, we'd never find someone to buy ad space on our sites.


Enter the Commonwealth
Fortunately, there are entrepreneurs that are very good at steps two through five. Even better, they are willing to perform them on your behalf- finding advertisers, placing their ads on your site, and sending you money as a result. One such company is the Commonwealth Network, and they are becoming quite successful at brokering ad space on sites that are otherwise unable to sell that space on their own.

The Commonwealth idea is simple. You register your site with the Commonwealth and indicate those specific pages on which you'd like to place ads. The Commonwealth sends you a few lines of HTML code to insert on those pages. When someone visits that page, the HTML pulls a banner ad from the Commonwealth server and inserts it into your page. Each time a visitor views the page and its ad, you get paid $0.0075.

I can hear the calculators being pulled out. Forty thousand hits on your site last month? Put $300 in your pocket. One million hits? $7,500. It's that easy.

Of course, there are a few details. The Commonwealth pays for "unique host impressions," not every last hit on your site. A single "impression" is defined as any number of visits to your site from a specific client machine in any given day. Thus, you can't hammer your site all day long in an effort to boost your royalties. After the first visit, subsequent hits don't count until the next day.

The Commonwealth also keeps a tight reign on who carries its ads. Every page must be visited and approved before the ad code is sent to the Webmaster. Pages are periodically inspected to ensure that the content has not changed dramatically and that the ads are placed properly. Spiders walk the registered pages, checking the text on the page to make sure it contains nothing that would be offensive to potential advertisers.

The vast majority of sites are perfect candidates for Commonwealth ads. To date, 3,000 sites representing more than 20,000 pages are carrying ads for the Commonwealth. A lot of people are cashing in on a simple, wish-I'd-thought-of-that idea. To get an idea of what a typical ad might look like (and to put a penny, $0.0075, in my pocket), visit my site. You'll find that the ads are non-intrusive and easily integrated into almost any page's content.

It all began...
The Commonwealth is the brainchild of Mike Paolucci and John Waller, two 25-year-old Webmasters who started the company Interactive Imaginations early in 1995. They started out with a series of Web-based puzzles and contests designed to lure advertisers and visitors, running on a server in their apartment in Manhattan. Known as Riddler.Com, the contests have gone through three revisions and have met with widespread success.

In April of 1996, the Commonwealth was born. The initial premise had an element of competition: a royalty purse would be divided among all the participating sites on a percentage basis. While this meant big winnings for a few large sites, lots of smaller sites were left out of the game.

By June, when the Commonwealth went into full production, the premise changed. Affiliates were paid a flat rate of $0.0075 per impression, with a cap of $20,000 paid to any one affiliate in any one month. With the element of competition removed, affiliates began spreading the word, and Commonwealth membership soared.

Mainstream advertising
The ads placed on Commonwealth affiliate sites are from major advertising accounts. According to Greg Stuart, executive vice president and director of marketing for the Commonwealth, ad banners from Toyota, Snapple, Microsoft, NBC, and Apple are currently in rotation on affiliate pages. The ads change frequently, and the Commonwealth will target specific ads to specific sites and pages. Different clients are looking to place their ads on certain kinds of sites, and it is a Commonwealth specialty to deliver this kind of "one to one" marketing for their clients. Snapple, for example, handpicked the sites to carry their ads.

According to Stuart, the clients are happy. By customizing the ad delivery based upon site content, browser version, and client operating system, Commonwealth provides well-targeted ads that meet their clients' needs.

More importantly, the Commonwealth is on its way to profitability. Current revenues are meeting projections and the Commonwealth is expected to turn a profit in 1997. That's good news for affiliates, who can expect to continue earning through their sites for the foreseeable future.

Making it work
Needless to say, the Commonwealth has long since been moved from that server in Manhattan. It now runs on a four-processor Silicon Graphics server using Netscape's Web server. The affiliate ad databases are managed by an Oracle database, with various CGI applications selecting and delivering ads to affiliate pages.

The Commonwealth is currently serving over a million banners a day, straining the T1 link that connects the Commonwealth to the Internet. System managers at the Commonwealth expect to expand both the processor capacity at the Commonwealth, moving to bigger SGI boxes, and the communication infrastructure, enhancing their T1 with an additional dedicated 10-megabit connection.

The Commonwealth also has a number of tools available for its affiliates. Visitors to the site can register new pages, check their current hit counts, visit other Commonwealth sites, and converse with other affiliates. The entire site is well done and a good example of a usable, Web-based front-end to a range of computing services.

Dealing with Microsoft
Recently, the Commonwealth entered into an agreement with Microsoft, that is just launching its Site Builders network. Site Builders provides tools and support to Webmasters, with a focus on Microsoft-based solutions. As a joint marketing effort between Microsoft and the Commonwealth, Microsoft will increase the ad royalty rate from $0.0075 to $0.01 per impression for any site that is also carrying the Internet Explorer logo.

Unix purists will surely blanch at the thought of providing that kind of endorsement for a Microsoft product. But consider this: how many people do you know taking money from Microsoft? Just knowing that every month Bill must cut you a check makes it much easier to place his logo on your pages.

It doesn't get any easier
Clearly, generating ad revenue from your site has gone from being extremely difficult to being trivially easy.

But should your site accept advertising? Some shouldn't. For example, if your Web pages are tasked to better the relationship between your company and your customers, you do not want Snapple or Microsoft advertisements intruding on your message. Then there are business concerns you might have as you transition your Web pages from a cost center (or hobby) to a profit center. Is $0.0075 enough compensation for hits coming from one domain? Is it fair to receive so little when America On Line, for example, caches Web pages for several days? Businesses such as Commonwealth seem like a good deal today, but my guess is its business model will evolve rapidly.

Once you start generating revenue, you'll need to increase your hit rates. Next month, we'll look at the flip side of advertising: how to advertise your site on other sites, luring visitors to your pages.

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About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running Melmac and the HTML Guru Home Page for two years, serving up HTML tips and tricks to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. He's been a beta-tester and contributor to the NCSA httpd project and speaks regularly on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related topics. His book, HTML: The Definitive Guide, is currently available from O'Reilly and Associates.

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