New Network Flavors

The affiliate network menu is expanding to offer many more options than just vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

Call them what you wish – ad networks, sub networks, CPA networks, CPA ad networks. No matter the name, these aggressive challengers are mounting pressure on the “Big 3” affiliate networks.

CPA ad networks, which use a cost-per-action payment model, are providing increased competition, which is likely to mean publishers will benefit from more choices, bigger payments, a wider range of potentially lucrative offers and what some observers claim is a more nurturing environment.

Affiliate consultant Shawn Collins refers to ad networks as the “hybrid of affiliate marketing – part merchant and part affiliate.”

Like traditional affiliate networks, CPA ad networks rely on publishers willing to promote their advertisers’ offers. But unlike their cousins, ad networks act more like direct CPA-deal brokers and generally focus on lead generation, registration-based offers and bounty programs. In addition, CPA ad networks often don’t require start-up fees and advertisers to prequalify, thus lowering the barrier to entry. It’s estimated that one needs approximately $5,000 to get a CPA network off the ground.

However, many claim the life span for the bulk of these emerging ad networks is limited and this crop will never be able to truly compete on a larger scope with the bigger established networks such as Commission Junction, LinkShare and Performics. “

CJ started in 1999 and the landscape has changed over the last six and a half or seven years,” says Kerri Pollard, director of publisher development at Commission Junction. “There’s been an increase in competition and new CPA networks.”.

Some affiliate managers argue that CPA networks fail to add value because they poach advertisers who are already in merchant affiliate programs. Others insist CPA networks add tremendous value because they attract new and unique advertisers who in turn, deliver new valuable customers.

Regardless, CPA networks are emerging as major players in the online marketing world. These marketing companies have direct access to groups of advertisers who, through a wide array of techniques, have the potential to drive a high volume of clicks, sales and new customers.

Maybe that’s why you can’t attend a conference or trade show related to online marketing without seeing the booths of the exhibit hall jam-packed with CPA ad networks looking to woo affiliates and garner some attention.”

Who’s on First

With so many players in the game, it’s difficult to keep tabs on everyone. Some well-known current networks include CPA Empire, DirectLeads, Endai Worldwide, Adteractive, Metarewards, The Vendare Group, XY7.com, YFDirect, eMarketMakers and TheBizOppNetwork. In addition, several new ones are popping up nearly every week.

In 2005, many of the major players gained a bigger foothold by partnering with other companies. Affiliate Fuel, also known as Thermo Media, LLC, was acquired by Experian in April. PrimaryAds was bought by Think Partnership for nearly $10 million. And ValueClick purchased Web Clients for $141 million.

For affiliates, much of the appeal of these ad networks is the size and frequency of payments. Affiliate networks usually pay on a monthly schedule or when a certain revenue level has been achieved, whereas CPA networks typically pay affiliates weekly so they don’t need to float the costs of advertising or, in the case of incentive sites, the costs of the incentives themselves. CPA networks often negotiate top-rate commissions for their publishers. In many cases, these deals are much better than what a publisher can negotiate from the merchant’s affiliate manager.

A post on the ABestWeb.com forum from an affiliate sums up the appeal of CPA networks:

“As an affiliate, I love them because they often pay considerably higher commissions than the major networks, they often pay quicker, and most don’t allow reversals,” writes Michael Coley, president of AmazingBargains.com.

While the affiliate appeal is high, some downsides to dealing with ad networks exist, including poor practices, such as cookie stuffing, adware, spyware and spamming. “

The biggest problem I’ve had is that campaigns will get canceled without any notice sometimes, so I end up having to find another source and switch out my links,” Coley continues. “I don’t think any of them are ‘clean.’ Most seem to work largely with email marketers, some of which are notorious for spam.”

Merchants claim to be somewhat cautious for a variety of reasons. Although CPA networks reduce the risks for publishers while maintaining the direct-response needs of the merchant, the merchants have no control over how their offer is presented. “

As a merchant, you don’t know who is promoting you, and the CPA network is not going to tell you, because you’d cut them out of the deal if they did,” according to Collins. “

What I like least about CPA networks is they build loyalty between the network and the affiliate with merchants’ money,” says Beth Kirsch, group manager of affiliate programs at LowerMyBills.com.

J.T. Stephens, director of auctions marketing and business development at Overstock.com Auctions, offers some tips for advertisers dealing with CPA networks:

  • Communicate your business needs;
  • Provide networks with an email suppression list of marketing companies/ affiliates on your blacklist and a list of your top affiliates that the network cannot contact;
  • Be on the alert for unsavory affiliate activities (adware, spam, spyware); and
  • Do not let the networks determine how to market your offer.

Many CPA network advertisers are huge proponents of free iPod offers and promotions. That tactic is likely to bring in customers more interested in the prize or giveaway than the merchant offer. This type of promotion fuels the perception that CPA ad networks only cater to less-savory advertisers.

Still, some figures state that big brand names make up 30 to 45 percent of all CPA advertising. Big-brand sites can also act as affiliates accepting CPA ad buys, such as MSN, when it has remnant inventory. Big-name publishers are selling CPA buys, but often it’s directly to the advertiser and not through the network.

Everybody into the CPA Pool

Though networks generally make more money selling on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) basis, some will sell leftover inventory and run CPA offers, according to an executive at one of the major affiliate networks, who asked not to be named for fear that the industry stigma associated with CPA practices would be damaging. In most cases, the networks are “booking these revenues as CPM,” the source says.

Another network executive says her network will continue to stay focused on its overall value proposition.

“We want to make CJ remain the preferred place for the new publishers,” Pollard says. “We have many different categories of publishers. They are the backbone of affiliate marketing. The top request from our 1,500 to 2,000 advertisers is overwhelmingly, ‘How can we help publishers trying to make money?'”

Pollard claims that by leveraging CJ’s connection with its parent company ValueClick, it can provide more value than CPA networks can by going beyond affiliate marketing to include lead-generation business, click integration, tracking and email.

“It’s a bigger and better picture to the clients. We have more synergies and offer them in a streamlined way,” she says. “But there is a lot of value that CJ brings as a trusted third party and the value associated with that is worth a lot to our clients. It’s currently a win/win situation and we want to make sure it remains that way.”

Rob Key, president and CEO of online agency Converseon.com, says the Big 3 are doing well with fraud initiatives and payment services. He also applauded LinkShare’s efforts in the area of analytics, which he says adds a higher level of sophistication to its program. However, he feels there is some room for improvement in the area of data feeds and customization.

“There will always be a place for LinkShare, CJ and Performics,” Key says. “But the space is expanding and people want more customization than the Big 3 can offer.”

He claims the movement toward more customized platforms has “topped out in the networks, which are looking to be all things to all people.” Instead, by offering specialized services, certain network alternatives help “people look beyond the traditional and reinvigorate.”

Converseon’s network-agnostic custom platform is designed to aid companies that are trying to get a view of their data across all channels, Key says. “You can’t do that if the affiliate data is off to one side, like it is with the networks,” he says, adding that the traditional networks will see continued price pressure.

Pollard expects to see consolidation in the CPA network space over the next year or two and says there’s no threat of a CPA network displacing any of the Big 3.

“I also expect that one or two other larger players may come in, but nobody that’s the size of LinkShare and CJ. CPA networks will evolve for months and years, but many of them will not be around for long,” she says.

The increasing power of ad networks was brought to the forefront at the end of last year when Commission Junction ousted AzoogleAds from its network. Because AzoogleAds was a CJ affiliate that grew into its own revenue-sharing network, many industry watchers claim it was just a matter of time before CJ kicked out the sub network.

Joe Speiser, AzoogleAds.com cofounder, called the move by Commission Junction “flattering,” adding that his company was clearly “dangerous enough from ValueClick’s point of view” to warrant giving up the “nearly 80 percent of traffic we brought in on the eBay campaign.” That’s a huge factor, since eBay is CJ’s biggest campaign.

Speiser also says that CJ was threatened by Azoogle’s growing presence.

Pollard says despite the incident with Azoogle, CJ has no plans to ban sub networks.

“Our business is always changing and we never want to put policies in place that hamper publishers and stop them. I want the creativity to remain,” she says. “Sub affiliates are great partners and we want to continue to have relationships with them.”

From Pollard’s point of view, sub affiliates “have found good niches and are good at servicing the advertisers.” However, she notes that it’s important for CJ to maintain network quality and ensure sub networks do not do business with affiliates that are engaging in questionable practices, such as performing downloads and software installations.

Collins says CPA networks are a dime a dozen. “A good amount of them fail quickly. If 10 new CPA networks open today, most of them will fail within months,” he says. “I guess it’s sort of like affiliates; there are a million affiliates and only about 10,000 that are doing things. Some aren’t going to move the needle,” Collins continues. “The networks certainly don’t need to sweat it just yet.”

Rather, according to Collins, pay per click is a much bigger threat to the networks than CPA. He expects a viable challenger to soon emerge (such as Direct Response or KowaBunga) that is backed by significant capital from a public company.

Regardless of the challenges, Pollard claims the good news is that the performance marketing pie is getting bigger and there’s room for everyone.

TV Tunes In

Broadcasters are jumping on board the online bandwagon as bandwidth makes video a reality for users.

Television networks have spent much of their 60-plus-year media reign continually adapting their revenue models for new delivery platforms such as cable and satellite. After many years of hoping that interest in multimedia Internet content would fade as quickly as sitcoms featuring former Seinfeld stars, the networks are now fully embracing online video distribution.

Now that online consumers spend just as much time at the keyboard as with the remote control (14 hours per week, according to JupiterResearch), the TV networks are joining the party. The top networks are creating custom content and partnering with online media moguls to develop streaming and download services.

Making even a fraction of the vast reserves of current and archived television programming available through streams or downloads to portable media players and mobile phones will greatly increase the partnership and revenue opportunities for online advertisers, search marketers, publishers and affiliates.

Video Takes Action

The networks’ initial forays into distributing content online primarily featured clips of programs that were distributed for free and without advertising.

News dominated the early offerings from CNN, MSNBC, Fox and the big three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). NBC was the first network to stream an entire regular newscast, when it launched its webcast of the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

Late last year that trickle of content became a steady stream, thanks in large part to Apple Computer. Apple sold more than 1 million video downloads within the first three weeks of its iTunes video store opening in October 2005. Over the next few months Apple signed deals to sell downloads of TV programming from NBC, USA Network, ABC, Disney, Showtime and others through its iTunes service for $1.99 per program.

The global market for pay-per-content broadband was $360 million in 2005, and it is expected to skyrocket to $7.5 billion in 2010, according to ABI Research principal analyst Michael Wolf.

He says that previously the networks were wary of putting premium content online, afraid it would cannibalize their broadcast efforts, but Apple’s successful introduction of a new version of its iPod that plays video files convinced the networks of the feasibility of selling television content online.

According to Wolf, the most dedicated followers of popular TV shows such as Desperate Housewives or The Office are likely to also be active online media consumers.

CBS’ website had the most unique visitors among video publishers, followed by MSN Video, AOL Television and Yahoo TV according to December 2005 data from Nielsen//NetRatings.

In order to broaden the reach of video content beyond their own websites, the TV networks are turning to search engines and portals to distribute content. CBS partnered with Google to sell downloads of some of its top-rated shows including CSI and Survivor as well as “classic” shows such as The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy through the Google Video Store. Disney is developing a broadband channel that could make up to one-quarter of its prime-time offerings available on demand.

America Online is offering old TV shows from parent company Time Warner including Alice, Chico and the Man and Wonder Woman. AOL also purchased video search engine Truveo in December 2005. Yahoo is teaming up with actors/producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and reality show guru Mark Burnett to develop an online reality show called The Runner.

However, the online video market still has some things to learn about alerting consumers to its offerings. Unlike television viewers who have several options to find programs of interest, online consumers are currently dependent on search to find programs.

To find what’s on broadcast and cable TV, viewers can look to TV Guide, newspaper listings, online programming guides and advertisements on the networks themselves. Currently, it’s the early days of television distribution on the Internet, and video search engines from Google, MSN, Yahoo and AOL do not offer TV directories or guides. Instead users are primarily using search boxes. Users plug in terms and hopefully find what they are seeking.

The next 12 to 18 months will be the prime time for the expansion of television programming online as the networks and search engines reach out to large and niche publishers to aid in content distribution. But the portals are not alone – specialty video search engines including TVEyes.com and blinkx.com are challenging the biggest players for a share of the advertising revenue from online television programs.

San Francisco-based blinkx has signed up E Entertainment, BBC, ABC, NBC, HBO and British news broadcaster ITN to deliver TV programming through its video search engine. blinkx CEO Suranga Chandratillake says, “2006 will be about telling other people to put our search on their sites.” The company is also partnering with performance marketing network Miva to expand the distribution of its video search.

Publishers can “splice and dice” the blinkx television feeds to create custom channels that match their individual audiences and will be paid via a revenue share, according to Chandratillake. For example, publishers could choose to limit searches to celebrity news, or make available only content from the A&E network.

Chandratillake says that to simplify the indexing of content, the TV networks provide metadata describing each program. blinkx enhances the quality of the search results through speech-recognition technology that identifies the subject matter being discussed.

Arise Ye Networks

Although most of the current revenue from full-length TV programming is derived from subscription services or downloads, income from advertising-supported content is expected to rival payfor- content. Advertising revenue will come from banner and contextual ads displayed on search results pages, as well as video ads that appear within the program.

Since the beginning, advertising has largely financed consumers’ almost-endless appetite for television, and online it is likely to be the same. The advertising market for online video will reach $8.6 billion by 2010, according to ABI Research.

“Broadcast TV shows are filler between the ads,” Peter Carlin, a TV critic for The Oregonian newspaper, says. He recently attended the Television Critics Press Tour where the Internet rated “above ratings” as a leading topic of discussion. Figuring out how to capitalize on online video distribution is top of mind for many TV executives, Carlin says, as they are anxious to exploit the lucrative online audience that tends to be younger and slanted toward males.

Carlin says broadcasters are learning how to maximize their revenue from digital content by exploring relationships with search engines and portals, and by testing new advertising models. “Nobody wants to be like the Betamax of new media age” and be left behind, he says.

To fully exploit the possibilities, TV broadcasters must learn about search engine optimization, developing affiliate networks and performance marketing revenue models. Carlin expects that the networks won’t have a problem with taking lessons from the online experts. “Being entirely reactive is not something they are uncomfortable with,” he says.

Video Ad Specialists

Demand for video ads will also create a new industry of production companies and interactive agencies that specialize in developing and distributing video ads. Companies such as ROO, PointRoll and Eyeblaster will work with online publishers to place ads within their online and downloadable content.

Repurposing TV programming for online distribution could also ignite interest in interactive technologies that link from videos or advertisements to landing pages. The networks have turned to escalating the use of product placement within programming to offset some of the revenue lost to online advertising, according to Carlin.

American Idol has blatantly pitched Nextel’s wireless service and placed large cups with the logo of Coca-Cola prominently in front of the judges, Carlin says, and The Office has an executive producer whose job is to determine how to incorporate products into the storylines “without prostituting the show.”

Microsoft is developing technology for its AdCenter platform that will enable video ads or broadcasts to link directly to other websites and with new technologies. This could open the door for the interactive TV market that has been much ballyhooed for a decade.

Dollars Drive Creativity

The revenue generated from online video distribution is likely to affect the creative process by increasing the demand for content and opening up the market for short forms of content. Television networks will likely use feedback from their websites to assess the viability of existing shows as they debut new programs online first to gauge audience response.

Carlin believes online distribution “increases appetite for shows that are less obviously mainstream.” The TV networks are quicker than ever to cancel shows, and online metrics could give the networks valuable input in determining a show’s fate. For example, fringe shows like The Office may get more consideration by the networks because of their popularity online.

Cable channel Comedy Central is aggressively pursuing an online audience and will develop 24 new online-only programs this year, according to Lou Wallach, senior vice president of original programming and development at Comedy Central.

Comedy Central has developed a media player called the “MotherLoad” to showcase its repurposed and original content. Wallach says that comedy is well-suited for short-form videos (five minutes or less) that have become popular online. Comedy Central’s online lineup includes sketch comedy and parody shows, such as All Access: Middle Ages, which pokes fun at the black plague and the crusades. The short-form video will also give increased exposure to digital and stop-motion animation, according to Wallach.

Wallach says one video ad will be shown in between every four to five segments. In addition to banner and video ads, Comedy Central is also considering sponsorships and product placement as revenue options.

Artists are embracing the new format, Wallach says. “The talent community recognizes that this form is here to stay.”

During the next year, television broadcasters will shift from experimentation in online distribution to expecting positive returns on investment. There is a strong incentive for publishers and advertisers to work with them to successfully exploit the medium. If online video distribution fizzles, the networks will likely cancel their online programs and invest more in competing video-on-demand services delivered to televisions.

JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.

Retooling the Web

Microsoft was late in recognizing the profit potential of online search. Meanwhile, upstart Google surpassed older search sites such as AltaVista, America Online and Yahoo to become the clear leader in search and, therefore, online advertising revenue.

In late 2005, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and chief technical officer Ray Ozzie wrote widely quoted memoranda acknowledging Google’s success and stating that Microsoft would refocus the company’s MSN division to address the “Internet services disruption.”

The Microsoft executives said the software giant would introduce advertising-supported services to the company’s vast portfolio of services and software, which would enable it to access a greater portion of the growing online revenue opportunities. Microsoft, which had become accustomed to defending a leadership position in desktop and server software, is now on the attack, trying to catch up to hyperactive Google, which has become an incessantly moving target.

Who Should Be Afraid

Although some online entrepreneurs may be fearful of becoming casualties in the escalating competition between Microsoft and Google, it’s traditional media companies that are much more likely to see their revenue streams reduced.

For the overwhelming majority of online sellers and service providers, the Microsoft-Google tussle will create more opportunities than it takes away, observers say. Neither MSN nor Google are primarily focused on the areas of selling products, search engine marketing, developing interactive advertising platforms or generating content. MSN may even provide a boost for the partner companies in its shopping and content portals, since MSN search does not exclude other sellers.

Google likewise opens search to anyone and everyone, and one of its main tenets is to remain inclusive. The company’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil,” a play on the nickname “Evil Empire” given to Microsoft by high-tech insiders. So far, most industry watchers claim that Google has remained true to its original precept of exposing the universe of digital information and supporting search through ads. The company does not directly sell products or services, and it continues to derive revenue from sharing in advertising dollars, which creates opportunities for both publishers and advertisers.

However, Google is showing an interest, albeit limited, in software development and distribution. Google now offers a desktop search application and Picasa, an image searching utility that could someday become supported through advertising. Google also reached an agreement with longtime Microsoft foe Sun Microsystems to cross-promote products and jointly market “Microsoft-alternative” applications such as OpenOffice.

Regarding the heightened Microsoft-Google competition, Rachel Lyubovitzky, vice president at search engine marketing company Searchfeed, says she doesn’t see any negatives for her customers. She says that by aggregating consumers who were previously a fragmented audience, the companies are “helping to organize Internet populations so that they will be more receptive to people’s messages.”

By convincing a majority of consumers to have either MSN Hotmail accounts or Google home pages, both companies are gathering information en masse, which advertisers love. However, even these users will continue to spend most of their time enjoying the diversity of content and search services available outside of Microsoft and Google, enabling plenty of room for creativity and innovation.

The online advertising market continues to grow rapidly, and Microsoft’s announcement that it would begin to support some of its multi-billion dollars in software and services through advertising is likely to further accelerate the growth. However, it may take several years for Microsoft to develop ad-supported services for the company’s recently announced Windows Live initiative, so don’t expect a major impact in the next 12 months.

Google’s new search services – which will streamline consumers’ ability to find video, music and text published in books – will likely also create a wealth of new advertising inventory options and contribute to market growth.

During the first nine months of 2005 advertisers spent $8.9 billion online, a nearly 29 percent increase over the previous year, according to Pete Petrusky, director of advisor services for accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Petrusky expects the double-digit growth of online advertising to continue for the foreseeable future, at the expense of other media buys. Online advertising revenue topped $12 billion in 2005, equal to the amount spent in consumer magazines, and closing in on the $16 billion spent on cable, according to Petrusky.

Increasing inventory through new services led by Microsoft and Google could correct what Petrusky sees as an imbalance between the amount of time spent online and the advertising dollars generated. “The Internet captures about 15 percent of people’s media consumption time,” says Petrusky, “… but only 3 to 4 percent of total ad spend” that includes magazines, newspapers, television and radio.

Newspapers, which have been losing revenue to online classified ad services such as Craigslist and Yahoo, will likely have more trouble competing online when both Google and Microsoft enter the arena. Television broadcasters will see their advertising revenue decline further as Microsoft and Google make it easier for people to browse video and audio content online.

Although both companies are rolling out dozens of new services, they cannot keep up with the wide variety of services created by entrepreneurs – there are too many moles to whack for either company to be dominant in all areas. In the areas where Microsoft and Google do compete with smaller companies, having a powerful brand alone isn’t enough to convince consumers to switch, according to Greg Sterling, program director with analyst firm The Kelsey Group.

“New services can’t be marginally better; they have to be much better” to prompt changes in user loyalty, Sterling says. For example, MSN search and Google’s comparison-shopping engine Froogle and Gmail email have had trouble gaining traction. Therefore, there will always be enough room for innovators such as Digg.com, Flickr.com or MySpace.com to innovate and carve out a niche (or be acquired by big players looking to expand).

Competition Is Good

The intensifying Microsoft-Google rivalry will create a better audience for advertisers and will spur innovation in the technologies that enable people to more quickly find what they are seeking. Microsoft’s interest in advertising- supported services will also provide a necessary counterbalance that prevents Google from becoming a dominant player.

“The more options, the better” for advertisers, says Michael Stalbaum, CEO of interactive marketing and advertising agency UnREAL Marketing. For several years Google has been expanding its reach as the largest player in the largest segment of online advertising dollars, so increasing competition from Microsoft could provide an important alternative solution.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, the volume of Internet search queries grew 15 percent between June and October 2005 to more than 5.1 billion. Nearly 48 percent of those searches were performed on Google, a figure more than double the closest competitor, Yahoo, and more than four times MSN’s share of search.

If Microsoft were able to become a stronger competitor in search, “it would be a positive for advertisers,” Stalbaum says, because Google may have to revamp its pricing structure. “Prices may come down a little bit,” he says.

Technology at the Core

The primary front in the battle between Microsoft and Google is technology, which will force all participants to continually innovate or risk losing their audience. If Google or Microsoft enters an emerging service area, the existing companies have additional incentive to upgrade their existing products.

For example, in early 2005, Google and Microsoft announced separate projects for digitizing books and making the content searchable. In December, publisher HarperCollins responded by announcing it would do the same for its content.

Charlene Li, principal analyst as Forrester Research, says the increasing competition “gives better products, which leads to better spending options” for advertisers. Products tend to be not only better, but come out more quickly once the powerhouses are involved. “Microsoft and Google participating, and to a lesser extent AOL, accelerates the product development cycle,” says The Kelsey Group’s Sterling.

Google Labs produces a steady stream of new services that make information more accessible, and the company’s willingness to share unfinished ideas with developers is accelerating the rate of technological change. Not surprisingly, Microsoft has shown an increasing willingness to publicly preview technologies and similarly make available its application programming interfaces (APIs) for developers to tinker with and enhance.

Opening up the technologies has proved a boon for third-party development. Innovations from Microsoft and Google are giving momentum to the next generation of interactivity online, designated as “Web 2.0.” Google has included Web 2.0 technology AJAX (asynchronous Javascript and XML) to build interactive Web applications such as Google Maps and Google Reader, a program that aggregates RSS feeds.

Google is also testing new technologies for publishers to structure and describe their content to make it easier to search. Salar Kamangar, vice president of product management at Google, says Google Base (which he emphasizes is not a classified ad service) is an experiment in allowing publishers to tell Google how their data is structured so that the company can deliver better results to consumers.

Rather than requiring Google’s search algorithm to guess how to identify an online seller’s product inventory, Google Base enables publishers to disclose how they format information. Data entered into Google Base is then made available to any Google property, such as Froogle or Local listings. This “increases the amount of content that Google properties can draw from,” Kamangar says.

Similarly, publishers looking to optimize their presence in search results can use Google’s Sitemaps tool to reveal how their sites are organized. Sitemaps “enables us to crawl their sites more effectively,” says Kamangar, adding that spidering websites today relies on following trails of links, making it difficult to detect dynamically generated pages. These efforts give publishers more of a say in how technology is used to influence their search standing.

Microsoft’s next-generation browser, Internet Explorer 7, will automatically discover RSS feeds and include tools for managing feeds. Microsoft also built RSS support into the Vista operating system, which will greatly increase the ability of publishers to widely distribute content by opening up RSS to a mass audience. Microsoft is also developing extensions to RSS known as simple sharing extensions (SSE) that will enable feeds to be shared and synchronized. For example, SSE could give publishers and affiliates the ability to automatically share information about advertising inventories and campaign performance.

The efforts of Google and Microsoft to outdo each other with sophisticated publishing and search technologies increases the burden on marketers to keep up with the innovations or risk having their websites appear lifeless by comparison.

Some publishers are using the available APIs for these emerging technologies to create “mash-ups” that mix data from multiple providers to create new hybrid applications. For example, Frappr.com lets individuals map where their online friends are, while ChicagoCrime.org shows where crimes are committed by matching police data with Google Maps.

Targeting Targeted Ads

Advertisers and consumers will benefit from the increasing competition as Microsoft and Google implement technology that tailors the online experience for each person. Personalized searching and browsing will create audiences that are more receptive to marketing messages.

Through the MSN AdCenter platform, Microsoft began offering advertisers a method of targeting ads to a particular demographic by leveraging data collected from its millions of registered users. When a signed-in user comes to an MSN site, Microsoft anonymously matches the demographic information to the visit, enabling the company to know the gender, age and location of the people who frequent their properties.

By enabling advertisers to target users by demographic characteristics, Microsoft is introducing targeted marketing “in an innocuous way,” says David Berkowitz, director of marketing at online advertising agency Unicast. He says targeted advertising will become “arguably the most groundbreaking innovation for advertisers.”

Berkowitz says that rather than competing with Google based on audience reach (quantity), Microsoft is relying on superior information (quality) about its customers to sway prospective advertisers. “MSN’s plan is not really about better software, but about delivering demographics,” Berkowitz says. Having demographic information about a large audience of registered users gives Microsoft an advantage in targeted marketing. “Forty million Hotmail users is a huge asset.”

Senior director of advertising and marketing Eric Hadley says Microsoft will evolve MSN AdCenter to target ads to people who set up personalized home pages on its websites, including the recently launched Start and Windows Live destinations. MSN AdCenter was first launched to support advertisers on its websites, but then will be rolled out to third-party publishers, putting it as a direct competitor to Google’s dominant AdWords and AdSense products.

Hadley says a future version of the MSN AdCenter will integrate a consumer feedback mechanism. “If you hover over an ad [with your mouse], there will be a pop-up window to say ‘why am I getting this ad?'” Users would be able to request not to see the ad again if the product or service is not of interest to them. For example, married people might not want to receive ads for matchmaker services.

A not insignificant challenge for Microsoft to make MSN AdCenter a success will be to build the marketing relationships with national and regional online publishers and advertisers. Determining how to split the business model for its applications and online services between subscriptions and support through advertising places a learning curve on a company built on selling products.

Microsoft and Google are vying to create personalized experiences by customizing search results based on prior searches, tailoring information preloaded onto home pages, and delivering ads based on user actions.

For a user who has not signed in before visiting an MSN site, Microsoft will use behavioral marketing techniques to generate contextual ads based on the person’s experiences on its network of sites. For example, Hadley says if an unknown customer is browsing the MSN Music site and searches for artists Kanye West and 50 Cent, ads for other rap artists would appear.

Behavioral marketing is effective in generating high conversion rates for advertisers, says Unicast’s Berkowitz. However, because it tracks consumer actions in the background, “it is a bit creepy,” he says. Microsoft and Google need to respect privacy when building personalization services to maintain consumer confidence. “A consumer has to decide who is trustworthy and who is evil. That’s going to be a major wild card” in determining whether or not users will feel comfortable in visiting a website.

Berkowitz also says, however, that companies must be careful in their pursuit of personalization services to prevent consumers from having too narrow of an experience. Google is experimenting by personalizing search results based on prior searches, but this increases the “risk that exposure to other things that might be of interest” could occur.

“I wonder how far you want to go down that personalization road before you lose the communal experience entirely,” he says. For example, Berkowitz says that while he is primarily a New York Mets fan, he doesn’t want a search engine to stop recommending articles about the rest of the league.

Looking forward, Microsoft and Google will determine if and how to commercialize the myriad of beta services that are currently under development while keeping one eye on what the other is doing.

Microsoft will learn the ropes of the ad-supported model for services and software while trying to grow and leverage its audience of registered users. According to MSN’s Hadley, the biggest challenge for Microsoft will come after the AdCenter platform is opened to third-party publishers. “How do we absorb all this demand from [large companies like] American Express to mom-and-pop” marketing firms? “As soon as we open the gates, we have to bring people in quickly with high quality.”

Algorithm-obsessed Google will continue to refine its search technology to better match customer expectations. “We are very far from being where a person can ask a question that brings back a single answer” that matches what they were looking for, says Google’s Kamangar.

For the rest of the decade and likely beyond, Microsoft and Google will continue to play the leading roles in the unfolding drama of the growth of the Internet as a platform for commerce and entertainment. Their perpetual sparring will spur all of the players involved to perform their best to satisfy the audience.

JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and MIT’s Technology Review.com.

Danger: Clicking Ahead

Sometimes a click isn’t really a click. Sometimes the person knocking on a website’s door is really a wolf in shopper’s clothing, perpetrating a fraud that wastes marketers’ advertising dollars or steals commissions.

Skip Pratt says his Web hosting company BAPort.com was being defrauded on 20 percent of its clicks. He was so frustrated by the problem that he developed a click fraud analysis application and started PPC Trax, an analytics company.

While most agree click fraud is a growing concern, there is no consensus on just how widespread or costly it has become. Depending on whom you ask, the amount of advertising dollars lost to fraudulent clicks ranges from negligible to as high as 40 percent.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau estimates that from 20 to 35 percent of ad clicks are fraudulent. When asked about click fraud, 25 percent of online marketers say it is not a problem, 45 percent say they are concerned about it and 6 percent view it as a serious problem, according to a 2004 Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) study.

The study also indicates that the majority of the click fraud is thought to occur on publisher and affiliate sites, not on search engines websites.

Chris Henger, vice president of marketing at Performics, says click fraud is not occurring on a large enough scale to have a material impact on the return on investment of advertisers that are Performics partners. He says click fraud is analogous to shoplifting in the retail world: companies have to watch out for it, but it won’t ruin the industry.

“I recognize that it is an issue, but it has gotten blown out of proportion,” Henger says.

He says that if click fraud really constituted 20 percent of advertising, it would show up in advertisers’ ROI and would cause search-marketing prices to fall.

But some think click fraud is a much bigger deal. ClickRisk president and CEO Adam Sculthorpe says the click fraud he has observed for his clients ranges from 15 to 70 percent of the total traffic. Sculthorpe has detected click fraud occurring on more than 1,200 websites and says his random sampling of log files indicates that “potentially there has been several hundred million dollars of total click fraud since 2003.”

Regardless of the actual numbers, there has been more media coverage of click fraud over the last several months. That media attention fuels the perception that click fraud is on the rise, and that is creating a real problem for search engines and threatening the pay-per-click model.

“After The Wall Street Journal published its article (in April), there was panic in the streets,” says SEMPO president Dana Todd.

Todd says that while the majority of smaller companies have heard about click fraud, many feel they do not have the resources to compare their performance with the reports they get from their search engines.

“Thousands of businesses that spend less than $1,000 a month are not going to spend the time to go through extensive reports,” she says.

Unfortunately for online marketers, there is no surefire technology solution to prevent click fraud from occurring, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to detect. “Despite what anyone tells you, it is technically impossible to stop,” says Steve Messer, CEO of LinkShare.

Messer says click fraud first became rampant in 1998 and 1999, causing LinkShare to shut down its pay-per-click TrafficShare network. “We had Ph.D.s working around the clock on click fraud defense technologies,” Messer says. But like many other cost-per-click networks at the time, LinkShare could not maintain a profitable business.

Commission Junction similarly ceased its pay-per-click advertising in 2001 because of click fraud, according to Elizabeth Cholawsky, the company’s vice president of marketing and product development.

Fraudian Slip

Companies that generate revenue for themselves by clicking on their ads use websites both created expressly to defraud as well as legitimate destinations, according to Ben Edelman, a Harvard law student who tracks online activities. Edelman says legitimate websites that artificially raise their revenue by a small percentage are very difficult for search engines to detect. “The system is set up so companies should be a little dishonest,” Edelman says.

While there are many not-so-bright fraudsters who do not mask their IP addresses and are easily identified, other more nefarious types are developing sophisticated software applications to commit click fraud.

LinkShare’s Messer says software that covertly requests advertisements or other Web pages is freely available on hacker message boards. Clever click fraudsters embed that code within other software – such as chat applications – so that each time a user sends a message, a “click” is also made.

Such click fraud software can be distributed through viruses that exploit software vulnerabilities and permanently reside on users’ machines, creating a network of unknowing accomplices with IP addresses that look genuine, according to Messer.

While ISPs can somewhat protect against spam by blacklisting known spammers and blocking messages with phony IP addresses, there is no automated mechanism for identifying click fraud in real time, says Messer. He says the only way to protect advertising dollars is to identify what appear to be fraudulent clicks after the fact by sorting through server logs.

Also, because advertisers and search engines are unwilling to share information about who is committing click fraud, there is almost no industry coordination in fighting it. Industry groups are talking about it more openly, though, including the Dallas/Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association, which has made click fraud the subject of several recent monthly meetings.

Defensive Measures

Along with Pratt’s PPC Trax, several other startups including ClickDefense, WhosClickingWho and VeriClix now offer fraud protection services that separate the wheat from the chaff in Web traffic data. These companies place snippets of code within ad pages that capture and analyze data from the computer requesting the page to look for signs of click fraud.

Pratt says PPC Trax’s software algorithm compares 22 to 24 characteristics of a click, including IP addresses as well as other factors that he considers proprietary information. However, sorting legitimate clicks from fraudulent ones is an imperfect science at best. “It’s virtually impossible to prove click fraud,” according to Pratt, who says he has more than 35 clients.

VeriClix offers a free pay-per-click auditing service that monitors ad programs from Google, Kanoodle, Overture and others. VeriClix founder Jeff Martin says he was working for an advertising agency when he saw an “obvious need” for a service that scrutinizes clickthrough rates. VeriClix is able to provide the service for free because it receives funding from search engine optimization firms Zunch and Search Engine Optimization Advantage.

VeriClix determines suspicious activity based on an algorithm that tracks the frequency of clicks, originating IP address and other identifying information. Advertisers can adjust the number of repeated clicks that are observed before a warning of suspicious activity is generated, according to Martin.

Foxes Guarding the Henhouse

At the heart of the issue for many Web publishers is the role the search engines play in click fraud. Internet advertisers spent $9.6 billion in 2004, and because the lion’s share of advertising dollars are spent through search engine marketing (over $4 billion in North America in 2004 according to SEMPO), the heat is on Google, Yahoo and others to act to limit click fraud.

Search engines have an obligation to monitor clicks as part of the service that they provide to advertisers, Martin says. However, he notes that the search engines have an inherent conflict of interest, since actually identifying click fraud reduces their revenue. Instead Martin suggests that combating click fraud requires an unbiased third-party auditor.

“Yahoo and Google have created a new business model that has grown beyond the proportions of what they ethically should be handling themselves,” Martin says.

But search engines have been slow to address click fraud, according to Greg Sterling, managing editor with analyst firm The Kelsey Group. “Click fraud threatens to erode confidence in the pay-per-click model,” he says. “Search engines haven’t done a lot to counteract the negative publicity.”

LinkShare’s Messer says that, for now, Google is growing faster than click fraud so it is not as noticeable, but advertisers’ return on investment may depreciate over time. Messer tells his customers not to bid on Google’s keyword program. “We won’t work with AdWords,” he says.

Performics’ Henger says that Google and Yahoo have always paid attention to customer concerns and are doing what they can to fight click fraud. “Google would not be so foolish as to turn a (blind) eye to click fraud just to make a few extra million dollars today and jeopardize its long-term business,” he says. Henger notes that Google and Yahoo have the proper financial incentives to control click fraud.

Google’s Role

Google CFO George Reyes shook up the search world when he told audience members at an investor news conference that click fraud poses the single biggest threat to the company’s business model.

Google business product manager Shuman Ghosemajumder wouldn’t say how much click fraud the search engine sees on its website, but contends that the amount is not increasing. “Overall losses due to click fraud are very small,” he says.

Google employs Web analysis software that automatically filters out any traffic that the company considers fraudulent before the company sends reports to its advertisers, according to Ghosemajumder. “We can’t prevent it from happening, because the action comes from an external source, but we can prevent the action from having an effect on advertisers,” he says.

Google has scientists and artificial intelligence experts on staff to fight click fraud, but Ghosemajumder declined to say how many employees are involved in the effort.

Google provides free conversion tracking software so that its customers can look for suspicious fluctuations in clickthrough ratios, and the company has a department dedicated to resolving customer disputes over click fraud. Detecting click fraud “is all about finding patterns,” and Google is spending a lot of money researching how to identify those patterns, Ghosemajumder says.

Ghosemajumder says that fraud (such as inflating circulation numbers) occurs in print media as well. “We provide one of the most accountable forms of advertising available,” he says.

Click fraud perpetrators may be unafraid of their actions because thus far there have been no criminal prosecutions. Ghosemajumder thinks that may change someday, noting that people have been successfully prosecuted for writing viruses or denial of service attacks, which are similar activities aimed at interfering with the operation of a business.

The Price of Isolation

Finding broad patterns of click fraud across the advertising universe has been a challenge because companies consider Web analysis data proprietary information. Unlike group efforts to combat spam and track computer viruses, search engines, advertisers and click fraud analysis companies have not shared information about when and how fraudsters are acting.

PPC Trax’s Pratt says his company does not compile click fraud statistics because the data is the property of his clients. VeriClix’s Martin says that search engines should provide more data to give advertisers a better view of their clicks.

“Google is holding information [about click fraud] close to the vest,” says Martin. He believes that search engines should make public all information about click rates that are not trade secrets.

Martin says that search engines should provide an application programming interface that would allow click data to be automatically extracted and compiled by third parties.

The data would not identify the advertiser and makes it possible to identify patterns of click fraud across the Internet. Impartial clearinghouse companies could mediate between advertisers and search engines and give advertisers greater confidence in the pay-per-click model since search engines have an inherent conflict of interest in tracking fraud (each click identified as spurious reduces their revenue).

Requiring search engines to turn over click data to third parties would be a reasonable request, according to Henger of Performics. Akin to the debate over global warming, some parties will continue to say that click fraud is an imminent threat of apocalyptic scale, while others say it is merely a mild irritant. However, search engines wanting their industry to continue its incredible growth will have to persuade the court of public opinion that click fraud is not a significant problem, and that they are doing all they can to fight it.

“Search engines have a responsibility – it’s a trust issue,” says SEMPO’s Todd. She says search industry participants should work together to “create a massive anonymous data pool” that would enable click fraud to be more easily tracked. “We don’t want to go back to the insanity of the ’90s where ad dollars are taken for granted.”

Regardless of where you rank click fraud on your scale of big cyber offenses, most agree that some level of action needs to be taken to help stop it and to move online marketing forward.

JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.

Crossing the Line

Years before the Nasdaq tanked and banner advertising died, e-commerce pioneers like Amazon.com and CDNow began partnering with topic-centric websites to drive revenues, paying a commission for each sale referred. The practice spread quickly and became known as “affiliate marketing.” By early 1999, Forrester Research proclaimed “affiliate programs” as the Web’s most effective traffic-driving technique – almost twice as effective as banner advertising.

Consider that by September 1999, more than three years after Amazon launched, there were over 1,000 merchants offering affiliate programs. And by 2000, Amazon’s Associates Program had grown to over 500,000 affiliates. What Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos started as a polite conversation had grown into an entirely new industry, bringing with it affiliate networks, directories, newsletters and a variety of consultants. Affiliate marketing is now an integral part of the Web’s composition. It’s also now widely heralded as the Web’s most cost-effective marketing vehicle.

Still, as affiliate marketing evolved, issues with the model have been exposed. The affiliate community needs to remember that affiliate marketing is not about generating “cheap” advertising, but developing profitable strategic relationships.

But there is a way for merchants to offer a win-win where both merchants and affiliates have a vested interest. Improving technologies now make it possible for the formerly CPS, CPA, CPL performance programs and the CPM, CPC and flat advertising models to unify, creating a hybrid I call the CPP (cost-plus-performance) model.

The CPP combines a paid campaign with a performance campaign and offers the best of both worlds. I see this as the future of affiliate marketing, a wide-open world of performance and payment where the CPP takes back inventory lost to Google’s AdSense and advertisers. The result is a whole new world of opportunities for merchants, affiliate managers and affiliates.

The hybrid CPP is converting former CPM and CPC advocates into affiliate marketing believers. For many top websites, affiliate marketing now represents a chance to loosen the grip of pay-per-click search engines and costly advertising. The most difficult obstacle in affiliate marketing is finding good affiliates with traffic. If a site sells traffic then they must have it, and if you negotiate a cost-plus-performance payout, valuable opportunities begin to open up.

Merchants are also realizing that affiliates need better tools. Technologies such as data feeds, site and shopping cart abandonment (exit traffic) promise to increase EPC and EPM numbers without compromising the visitor’s experience, thereby improving monetization. By offering additional products and services at or after the point of sale, merchants can add revenue without diluting the sales process.

It’s becoming clear to merchants, affiliate managers and affiliates that the line between performance and traditional advertising has been breached.

It started with Google’s entry into the market. Google’s AdSense captured valuable affiliate program inventory, which caused the flexible affiliate marketers to evolve again. The industry’s response was to tangle with the paid advertising side of the market. Google’s method is to pay out for ad space – the same ad space that was used by affiliate marketers. That limits available inventory and changes the Web publisher’s expectations.

Some affiliate marketers using AdSense end up cannibalizing their own market. Why? To get guaranteed income from traffic. If you pay for traffic, you’re guaranteed to get it. The merchants get guaranteed traffic and the affiliates get guaranteed revenue from traffic. This presents a problem, however. Traditional advertising places the risk on the merchants, while performance places the risk on the affiliate. In either case only one has a vested interest in the campaign.

It’s clear from a handful of studies and reports that marketers are frustrated with the current process.

A recent survey of 135 senior-level marketers found that while 60 percent of respondents said defining, measuring and taking action on ROI is important, only 20 percent are satisfied with their ability to do so. In addition, 73 percent reported a lack of confidence in their ability to understand the sales impact of a campaign.

The study, conducted by Marketing Management Analytics, the Association of National Advertisers and Forrester Research in April 2005, was presented in July at the ANA’s 2005 Marketing Accountability Forum.

A Media Life survey of media buyers quantified what most already suspected: media buyers think that only about half of media reps know what they’re doing (MediaBuyerPlanner.com). A significant minority of the buyers – about one in six – have such a low opinion of representatives that they said only 10 or 20 percent are useful.

Complaints centered, unsurprisingly, on time wasting, in the form of over-contacting and proving ill-prepared when conversations do take place. Another big complaint proved to be overly hard selling, with some reps believing that repetition or browbeating may succeed in getting a property on the buy where the numbers won’t.

Half of the buyers said they agree with the statement that the rep problem was “no big deal. Sure, they’re annoying sometimes, but I’m sure they find me equally so. It’s how the industry is set up.” About 45 percent agreed instead that reps are “a necessary evil. Most are okay, but there are a few really obnoxious ones I hate doing business with.”

Even with all the issues, the good news is that the affiliate community is still evolving. Organic search is becoming more competitive. CPM rates are going up. Paid search is becoming cost prohibitive and the need for cost-effective online inventory is becoming stronger, causing the affiliate space to grow at ever-increasing rates. As merchants, affiliate managers and affiliates become even more interwoven, the friction decreases and new forms of integration and aggregation are made possible.

I see it this way: the race is on! In the last year the number of merchants offering affiliate programs has more than quadrupled. Literally millions of websites now participate as affiliates – from personal homepages at GeoCities and Homestead to Fortune 500 companies. And now, more often than not, merchants with affiliate programs are also affiliates.

Whether termed affiliate marketing, collaborative commerce, revenue sharing or syndicated selling, the affiliate space leads the way in the ever-changing landscape of online marketing and has become the Web’s fastest, simplest and most cost-effective marketing vehicle.

As both merchants and affiliates continue to recognize the power of change, affiliate marketing’s best days are yet to come. In a few short years, affiliate marketing looks to become the tail that wags the dog – controlling the majority of the adverting and marketing dollars.

GREG SHEPARD is the CEO of NetTraction, a firm that specializes in deploying, managing and growing affiliate programs. He can be contacted by visiting www.NetTraction.com or by email at cmo@nettraction.com.

The Race to Embrace

Online marketers and merchants are quickly adopting new technologies such as blogging to help drive traffic and sell products.

Buzz Bruggeman, founder and CEO of ActiveWords, says his company has spent just $600 to advertise its ActiveWords software application. Yet thanks to his blog-centric marketing philosophy, ActiveWords was named the Third Best Software Product of the Year by Jupitermedia. The application has also been downloaded more than 100,000 times. Speaking in San Francisco at the Business Blog Summit in August, Bruggeman said more than 60 percent of those downloads come after people read the blog.

“It’s been a blessing,” Bruggeman says.

He’s not the only one getting good results. D.L. Byron, principal of Textura Design, says that his blog gets more than 1.5 million page views per month and the company has sold more than 50,000 of its Clip-n-Seal gadget as a result of the company’s blogging efforts. They have also expanded their markets to Ireland and the Caribbean, as well as into new industrial market spaces – such as getting orders from NASA – based on people finding them via the blog.

Blog On

New research is coming out rapidly, and figures are changing quickly. And while the exact numbers on the size of the market vary widely, most agree that the blogosphere is growing by leaps and bounds.

Perseus Development Corp. randomly surveyed 10,000 blogs on 20 blog-hosting services and found that as of June 2005 there were 31.6 million hosted blogs created on services like Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanga and MSN Spaces. Ten million were created in the first quarter of 2005. By the end of 2005, Perseus expects there will be 53.4 million blogs.

In August, some research reports put the number of blogs at more than 70 million worldwide.

According to a study conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project in early 2005, 6 percent of the entire U.S. adult population has created a blog.

Technorati.com estimates there are approximately 900,000 blog posts every day, or 10.4 posts per second. The blogosphere continues to double about every five and a half months. A new blog is created about every second; there are over 80,000 created daily. About 55 percent of all blogs are active, and close to 13 percent of all blogs are updated at least weekly.

So there is no doubt that blogs are being created, but who is reading them?

According to two studies by Pew, 16 percent of U.S. adults, or 32 million, are blog readers.

A June report from market researcher comScore, sponsored by SixApart and Gawker Media, states that 50 million Americans, or 30 percent of all American Internet users, visited a blog in the first quarter of 2005. Traffic to blogs increased by 45 percent from the first quarter of 2004, according to the study.

The average blog reader viewed 77 percent more pages (16,000) than the average Internet user who doesn’t read blogs (9,000 pages) for the first quarter of 2005. The report also found that blog readers average 23 hours online per week, compared with the average Web user’s 13 hours.

The comScore study also found that blog readers are 11 percent more likely than the average Internet user to have incomes of or greater than $75,000 per year. Similarly blog readers are 11 percent more likely to visit the Web over broadband either at home or the office.

The good news for online marketers is that blog readers tend to make more online purchases. In the first quarter of 2005, less than 40 percent of the total Internet population made online purchases. By contrast 51 percent of blog readers shopped online. Blog readers also spent 6 percent more than the average Internet user, the comScore study reports.

Mind Your Business

So it’s no surprise that businesses are trying to leverage this phenomenon. For merchants and online marketers, using the Internet journal format of blogs allows businesses to talk directly to customers, generate product buzz and encourage consumer loyalty, while bypassing traditional media outlets such as newspapers and magazines.

At press time there were no exact figures on how many companies, executives and employees were blogging. Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer for Intelliseek, estimates that there are more than 150 official corporate blogs, with hundreds more in the works.

Big companies are getting into the act. General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz has a blog (FastLane.GMBlogs.com) that gets between 150,000 and 200,000 unique visits a month. So does Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz’s (Blogs.sun.com/jonathan), who often uses his blog to take on Sun competitors and market analysts. His blog gets about 300,000 visits a month.

Both Lutz and Schwartz have written several blog entries that raised eyebrows, but corporate blogs don’t have to be controversial to attract attention. Stonyfield Farm, a New Hampshire company that sells organic yogurt and ice cream, has five blogs (www.Stonyfield.com/weblog). Aircraft manufacturer Boeing also uses a blog to promote its brand. Randy Baseler, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, made his first entry in Randy’s Journal (www.Boeing.com/ randy) the day before rival Airbus unveiled its A380 super jumbo jet.

Google has launched a blog explaining the ins and outs of its AdSense program (adsense.BlogSpot.com) to publishers. The effort to make AdSense’s workings more transparent offers optimization tips and features descriptions to prospective and existing publishers in the AdSense network and is updated three times a week by a variety of “engineers, product managers, product marketing managers, and operations staff” on the AdSense team. Google’s AdWords program has had its own blog since May.

For online marketers the idea is to be part of the conversation in your space and to get noticed, according to Dave Taylor, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Growing Your Business with Google and well-known business blogger at www.Intuitive.com/blog.

Taylor suggests online marketers offer something of value to visitors. “Communicate with people to show them you are an expert in your area and give them a reason to buy from you,” he says. “So if you are an affiliate that sell laptops, write laptop reviews and blog about that. Include how-to’s or product guides. Blog about maintenance issues. You will give people a reason to trust you. It builds credibility.”

One often-cited story of a blog propelling someone to success is Thomas Mahon, a Savile Row tailor with a blog at www.EnglishCut.com, in which he discusses in great detail the specifics of creating expensive, custom suits – everything from buttons to selecting the right wool. Hugh Macleod, a top-10 blogger, wrote about his pal Mahon, who at the time was having trouble just paying his rent. That gave Mahon’s blog a huge traffic spike and suddenly his sales started to climb. He went from making two suits per month (at $4,000 each) to making 34 suits per month.

Mahon has also been able to expand his market beyond London. In fact, now when Mahon wants to travel to a specific location, such as New York, Los Angeles or Hong Kong, he simply lets his blog readers know and once he’s gotten orders for at least four custom suits he books his travel – a far cry from scraping by to pay his rent.

While these types of success stories are not uncommon, there is a limit to how many times lightning can strike.

“Blogs will help some affiliates become more important,” says Shel Israel, coauthor (with Robert Scoble) of the forthcoming book Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers. “A few will increase their sales by orders of magnitude. Then they will be imitated to death and, suddenly, no one will be unique anymore. It’s very important to be first with a unique story to tell. It becomes much harder to be second or third.”

Say No to Faux

Unique is good. But Taylor advises against getting too personal in a blog related to your business. “This is a business communications tool. You need to stay on topic. Talk about movies and personal things in your personal blog. Some bloggers think it should all be intermingled. I don’t.

“What if I have strong religious beliefs? That might conflict with the views and opinions of some of my readers and then I would lose business. That’s bad business. Use a blog to build credibility, not the cult of personality.”

Most agree that showing authority and knowledge about a topic as well as passion help make a good blogger.

“Personality is a word that makes me flinch,” says Israel. “You want to be professional and authoritative, but not boring. Boring is death in the blogosphere.”

Taylor says it’s the same principle that should be applied to traditional advertising – it’s about the product, not the personality. “That was the problem with the Dell ad campaign: ‘Dude, you’re getting a Dell.’ It was counterproductive because you want people to think Dell, not dude.” That issue proved to be particularly problematic for Dell when its spokesman for that campaign was arrested in New York and charged with possession of marijuana.

Some big companies are employing corporate bloggers. Microsoft hired Robert Scoble, whose blog Scobilizer is one of the most popular. Though for most affiliates and online marketers it might not be financially feasible to hire a blogger.

But there’s nothing that will destroy your credibility quicker than creating a fake blog. Most industry watchers and blog experts agree consumers can spot a fake blog immediately. They pick up on the insincerity instantly. Fake blogs simply stir up the ire of blog readers by disguising the fact that they are really ad campaigns. McDonald’s made this misstep when the company posted a new blog in advance of a Super Bowl campaign about a Lincoln-shaped french fry.

Steve Rubel, vice president of client services at CooperKatz & Co., a New York public relations firm, who also had a blog (www.MicroPersuasion.com) suggests avoiding fake blogs or just regurgitating press releases.

“It’s about finding the intersection of your passion and what people care about,” Rubel says. “Hopefully, they overlap.”

Spreading the Word

If they do, you’ll likely get other bloggers and consumers talking about you or blogging about you. That buzz can help. If other bloggers are linking to your business, it increases your ranking on Google. That helps people find you.

Clip-n-Seal’s Byron says, “Sales come from search, not ads.”

But Bruggeman adds, “Blogs are not about eyeballs. It’s about the conversation.”

“Word of mouth is very important,” Taylor says. “It’s important to know how people are getting to you, not just how people are searching for you.”

But word of mouth can be a double-edged sword. Many fear the consequences of letting consumers freely express their opinions. Those with the fear aren’t sure about allowing readers to post comment in their blogs.

However, some bloggers allow comment, even negative ones, as a way to add a level of credibility. It’s an individual choice. Israel says he uses what he calls the Living Room Policy.

On his blog (www.ItSeemsToMe.com) Israel writes, “If you come into my home and you are rude to me or my guests, I will ask you to be more polite. If you persist in being rude, I will throw you out of my home and will not allow you back into the house. If you begin with the clear intent of being offensive, you will be tossed out and banned without warning. I also take a dim view of anonymous comments. I am suspicious of people who take a position and will not demonstrate the courage to reveal who they are. I often just dump out those comments whenever I feel like it. This does not mean that I don’t welcome disagreement. But if you’re going to come onto this site with a spray paint can in your hand, you’re out of here.”

While you can control whether to allow others to comment on your blog, you have no control over what others say about you or your company on their blogs.

For example: Jeff Jarvis, the creator of Entertainment Weekly magazine and a high-profile blogger (www.BuzzMachine.com), took Dell Computer to task for the company’s alleged refusal to fix or replace Jarvis’ broken computer.

BuzzMachine frequently receives more than 5,000 visitors a day, and an open letter that Jarvis wrote to top Dell executives was the most linked-to post on the blogosphere for that day, according to Intelliseek’s BlogPulse. The post was also either linked to or discussed by at least .01 percent of all blog posts written that day, according to BlogPulse.

Back before the Net, Jarvis might have been just another dissatisfied customer. But today his widely circulated criticism triggered dozens of other bloggers and hundreds of others to publicly complain about service they’ve received from Dell’s technical support.

That problem is not unique to Dell. Many companies are not prepared to handle how their customers can share their experiences virally, says Intelliseek’s Blackshaw.

In the end, complaints that appear in blogs can do as much damage as a negative advertising campaign. Prompted by the incident with Jarvis, Dell’s public relations department began forwarding complaints with personally identifiable information to the customer service department so that representatives could contact dissatisfied consumers directly.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and an investor in IceRocket, wrote in his August blog (www.BlogMaverick.com) that blogs have changed customer complaints.

“It used to be an old customer service mantra that ‘one upset customer can tell 20 people about how poorly your company performed, and those 20 people could tell 20 more, and your business could really suffer.’ Keep all your customers happy, and you won’t have to worry,” Cuban says.

“Those numbers are miniscule compared to today. In today’s world, one upset customer can write in their blog about how upset they are about your product or service and it could be linked to by any number of other blogs, which in turn are linked to by any number of blogs, which is in turn picked up by a TV news show. In 24 hours or less, tens to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have heard the complaint, and your business and brand are at risk.”

Searching for Blogs

But before you can handle a potentially problematic situation, you have to know what is being said about you or your company and where it’s being said. It’s a good idea to subscribe to blogs with RSS (really simple syndication) feeds as well as use RSS to send out your feeds. As of August, just 11 percent of blog readers, or about 2 percent of U.S. Web users, were using RSS tools to manage blog feeds, according to a report released by Nielsen NetRatings.

Nearly 5 percent of blog readers use feed aggregation software, and more than 6 percent use a feed aggregating Web site to monitor RSS feeds from blogs, according to a Nielsen NetRatings June survey of 1,000 online users who had visited blog sites.

The report also found that 66 percent of blog readers either did not understand RSS or didn’t know it existed, according to the report, which is titled, “Understanding the Blogosphere.”

Another way to monitor who is saying what about your business is to use niche search engines like Feedster, IceRocket (to be renamed www.BlogScour.com), PubSub and Technorati. These search engines are already monitoring and indexing millions of blogs so they can be searched. Technorati tracks more than 15 million blogs, and that number is growing every week. In July IceRocket claimed to track 18 million blogs, up from about 15 million four months before.

Many speculate that paid search and contextual advertising will progress into the context of customer-created dialogue. Search will be less about acquiring customers and more of a tool to insert brands into conversations between individual people, markets and groups of like-minded folks.

So monitoring, analyzing and archiving that conversation is becoming valuable. And like most other areas of the Net, where there is great opportunity there is also the potential for fraud.

Another obstacle in the efforts to organize and search blogs is that some companies appear to be using computer programs to create spam blogs or “splogs.” The sole purpose of these splogs is for posting links to their websites. The problem for blog search engines is that when users query certain terms the served results can end up being links to these splogs, instead of to the consumer-generated content the searchers were looking for.

Cuban says these blog search engines are being spammed in monstrous proportions in the blogosphere because it’s so easy to do. He writes, “Blogs are coming at us left and right. We are killing off thousands a day, but they keep on coming. Like Zombies.”

He puts some of the blame on Google, which owns Blogger.com. The service enables users to set up free blogs. However, some say the onus is on search engines to come up with better algorithms, not on the blogging software to stop splogs.

Making Money

There are lots of blogs, but are online marketers making money?

Weblogs Inc. is a network of 80 blogs. It is generating a steady stream of revenue from network ads and direct ads. The network ads are automatically served by Google and Tribal Fusion, and direct ads are the result of contracts with such advertisers as Equifax, Pacific Poker, Palm, Subaru and Volvo. According to founder Jason Calacanis, the majority of the company’s revenues come from direct ads, which currently command a CPM rate of between $4 and $12, whereas network ads generate CPM between $1 and $4.

Weblogs Inc. generates more than $1,000 per day from Google AdSense alone and has recently surged as high as $2,000. More than half of Weblogs’ advertisers end up buying space on more than one of the network’s blogs, says Calacanis, but to interest a direct advertiser, a blog’s traffic must exceed 1 million page views per month.

John Battelle, co-founding editor of Wired magazine and founder of The Industry Standard, has started Federated Media, which will serve as an ad and marketing network for high-quality blogs. FM will function much like a book imprint or record label, aggregating like-minded blogs, (about 10 to 20 per category to start). The categories include technology, media, pop culture, entertainment/gaming and sports segments.

BlogAds has a network of 750 blogs. Advertisers have run the gamut from carmaker Audi to political and other special interest groups. BlogAds expects to have 2,400 ads on blogs for the month of August, up from 700 a year ago. The average blogger makes $50 a month from displaying BlogAds, but some bring in more than $5,000 monthly, CEO Henry Copeland says.

Advertisers can find the separate groupings, along with traffic numbers and prices, and do a partial or full network buy. The theory behind the new networks is that bloggers can group themselves together much better than a top-down organization – because of the large volume of blogs – and advertisers get to select blogs by category, and on top of it reach millions who don’t read the top blogs but do read myriad others.

And while blogs will never replace other forms of content on the Web, they do have a distinct role to play, according to Jon Gibs, senior research manager at Nielsen NetRatings. “While these sites will likely never have the traffic of some of the larger ad networks, blogs do have a specific role to play in the online advertising mix,” Gibs said in the report.

“Advertisers should look to blogs as a way to organically grow trends by leveraging the role of bloggers as peer influencers. By associating their message with the blog’s image, advertisers can legitimize new trends they are hoping to promote to a niche audience.”

It’s a Commitment

Israel says that most bloggers like to take the position that every business should blog, “but that’s just not true.”

“There is a tremendous time commitment. It’s not just about doing your own blog, but about seeing what others are saying and being part of the bigger conversation. If you don’t have the time or the inclination, then you shouldn’t be a blogger,” he says.

Rubel say it’s a lot of effort but “you get what you put into it.”

Still, even if you don’t have the resources or commitment for blogging, you can’t just ignore it.

“You can no longer ignore the blogosphere,” Israel says. “It’s here and it’s where the fastest-growing news is taking place. Its influence is enormous, and it’s continuing to grow. And it’s not going away. It’s only going to get bigger.”

Off the Mark

Affiliates and Web publishers who sell goods from the most popular brand name merchants are losing traffic and revenue to Web sites that lure consumers by deceiving them with unauthorized use of trademarked products.

This happens when a Web publisher embeds the most popular brand names into their site in order to attract consumers who are using a search engine to find specific products. These visitors are often directed to Web sites that sell similar products, but not the specific ones they were looking for. Instead, consumers see rival products.

For example, a consumer types “Nike” into a search engine and is directed to a Web site that sells sneakers made by rival Reebok, but not those made by Nike. In this scenario, the consumer may get frustrated and move on to another site that does sell Nikes. Or they might buy one of the competitive offerings. This means the offending Web site profits and has less incentive to stop these deceptive practices.

This very common tactic has upset consumers, the makers of popular brand name products, as well as affiliates authorized to sell these products. In an attempt to stop such behavior, there have been several high-profile lawsuits in which brand names such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Nike and Geico Insurance have sued specific Web publishers and search engines to control their own brands on the Internet.

These lawsuits raise a key question: Can one corporation prevent another from linking to its trademarked, for-profit Web site?

The answer is not easy to determine. Many companies are testing the limits of trademark law by suing alleged Internet trademark abusers for infringement. So far the results have been mixed.

Terence Ross, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a Washington, D.C., law firm, has represented plaintiffs in cases against adware makers Claria and WhenU. “Unfortunately, there is no more certainty as to what the law is than a year ago,” he says. “There have been a number of court decisions on either side of the issue.”

An August 2004 decision by the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia delivered a blow to search engine giants Google and Overture Services in their efforts to defend ad sales of trademarks as “fair use.”

But that changed in December when a federal judge ruled that Google’s advertising policy doesn’t violate federal trademark laws. Google will now be allowed to sell ads to rival insurance companies whenever Geico’s name is typed into the Google search box.

Geico sued Google and Overture in May 2004, saying that use of its trademarks when selling advertising in search engines constituted trademark infringement and raised various state law causes of action. Google filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that it had no legal merit and that the state claims were insufficiently pleaded.

The August ruling, which allowed insurance giant Geico to sue Google and Overture for allegedly selling advertisements linked to its trademark, could have threatened the livelihood of the search engines. Overture, which is owned by Yahoo, and Google make money by selling ads linked to keyword-triggered search results, and many commercially driven searches are tied to trademarked brands such as Geico or Nike.

Google attorneys cited the U-Haul International v. WhenU case, in which the moving-truck company alleged trademark infringement against WhenU for displaying rivals’ pop-up ads over its Web page. The court found in favor of WhenU, because it only used U-Haul’s marks for “pure machine-linking function,” Google argued.

For its part, Geico cited the Playboy v. Netscape and Excite case, in which the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that the two online portals created consumer confusion when using Playboy trademarks to sell banner ads. That suit took five years to settle.

More Legal Battles

Many of the cases are settled before they ever reach the court, with smaller sites often removing the trademarked terms to avoid a costly legal battle. There are some high-profile cases that are still pending. Many are closely watching the trademark suit filed by American Blind and Wallpaper Factory against Google along with its partners Netscape and Ask Jeeves.

The suit, filed in January 2004 in a New York federal court, claims Google’s practice of selling text ads related to keyword search terms takes advantage of American Blind’s trademarks, because rivals’ ads can appear on results pages turned up by searches for “American wallpaper” and “American blind.”

American Blind had threatened to file the lawsuit last year. That, in turn, prompted Google, in a filing with the US District Court for the Northern District of California, to argue that “American” and “blind” and other words American Blind was claiming as trademarks are descriptive terms and shouldn’t enjoy trademark protection.

The company disagrees. “We spend millions of dollars annually to build brand awareness and cannot stand idle while Google allows our competitors to ride our coattails,” according to a statement from Steve Katzman, CEO of American Blind, which says it has spent more than 50 years and $70 million building its reputation.

American Blind says the outcome of this suit will have repercussions for other businesses that include generic words in their names, such as General Motors and National Car Rental System, which could also be targeted for keyword-based advertising.

What About The Networks?

And while some affiliates are relying on the courts to protect them, others think it is the responsibility of the networks to stop this practice. However, some say the networks gain from helping affiliates profit from brand confusion.

“These people are interested in making money, and when a trademark is infringed on, they are still getting paid,” said one affiliate who asked not to be named. “It’s not in their best interest financially to enforce or police rules to try to stop these unethical practices.”

One affiliate manager says that networks are supposed to be the trusted party in this equation, and they must try to uphold fair business standards.

“The industry is failing to recognize that there is widespread use of trademarked keywords,” says Alan Schneider, president of R U on the Net, an affiliate manager, who has stopped many of his affiliates from using trademarks.

However, he also notes that when affiliates in his network were asked to cease and desist from using trademarks or competitors’ URLs in their advertising, their sales often dropped by as much as 80 percent.

Search For Tomorrow

Search engines are also profiting from brand confusion. Both Overture and Google allow marketers to bid for keywords that may be trademarks or linked to trademarks. Some say they are not eager to police trademarks because they risk losing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a month on lost pay-per-click revenue.

Paid search is one of the fastest growing and most closely watched segments of the online advertising business. According to Jupiter Research, paid search will grow from $1.6 billion in sales in 2003 to $2.1 billion in 2004, and it will continue to grow at a compound annual rate of 20 percent through 2008.

In addition, more than half the total searches are for branded keywords such as Wells Fargo, according to comScore Networks, a market research company.

The search engine companies have long had ambiguous policies on trademark-related advertising. Most refuse to actively police infringements. Instead, they opt for a hands-off approach, acting only if there is a complaint from a trademark owner.

More than a year ago, Overture changed its policy and posted a trademark notice on its site, informing advertisers that it is their responsibility to respect the trademark rights of others.

“In cases in which an advertiser has bid on a term that may be the trademark of another, Overture allows the bids only if the advertiser presents content on its Web site that refers to the trademark … or uses the term in a generic or merely descriptive manner,” according to the policy.

It’s All About The Meta Tags

Meta tags are HTML code embedded on a Web page used to identify its content. Meta tags are powerful tools because they have a direct effect on the frequency with which many search engines will find a Web site. When a search engine finds a search term in a meta tag, it indexes the Web page for display in its search results.

In the early days of Internet search engines, Web page programmers influenced Web searches by spiking the meta tags with the same word over and over to improve their standing in search engine results. Most search engines have since been trained to largely ignore these repetitions.

But not every meta tag use of another company’s trademark is illegal. When the trademark is used only to describe the goods or services of a company or their geographic origin, it is permitted under trademark law as “fair use.” For example, if a site delivers content such as music from the Amazon region of South America, it may use the word “Amazon” in its meta tags. This use would not infringe the Amazon.com trademark because the term “Amazon” is being accurately used to describe the goods offered.

Unfortunately, there is no clear test for proving fair use, and even a merely descriptive use of a trademark in a meta tag may trigger a lawsuit. Legal experts say, “When in doubt about using a trademark in your meta tag, leave it out.”

The Resolution

Most agree this issue is going to take some time to be resolved.

“I think it’ll take a couple of years,” says Jeffrey Riffer, a partner at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro, a law firm in Los Angeles. Riffer was the lawyer for defendants Excite and Netscape when Playboy sued them for trademark infringement. Playboy prevailed in that case.

“There needs to be some appellate court rulings on this before it will settle down. We are still at the beginning. There was nothing like the Internet before, so the courts didn’t know how to deal with the issue. There was tension between what the search engines want to do and what the trademark holders want. But there are still more of the fights that will happen in the trial courts.”

Riffer says that when everything finally does settle down, he believes that search engines will be allowed to sell keyword advertising.

“It’s good public policy to allow advertisers to sell advertising to the audience that is most likely to be interested in that advertising,” he says. “It’s good for consumers, pro-competitive and the right application of trademark law. Under the law a trademark holder doesn’t have a monopoly on the trademark. They are only allowed to stop other companies when there is a likelihood of confusion.”

But what if things don’t shake out in favor of the search engines?

“The world will go on if things go the other way, but it’s bad public policy, and at that point the search engines should hire a lobbyist and go to congress,” Riffer says.

Barry Felder, a partner head at Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner, a New York law firm and Playboy’s counsel in the suit against Netscape and Excite, says he expects that traditional trademark analysis will be applied, but in the context of the Internet, over the next one to three years.

“I expect guidelines for both the search engines and the trademark holders,” Felder says. “They will both have to be familiar with and adopt the appropriate conduct. I don’t know that one party or the other will prevail. The analysis will turn on whether the use [of the trademark] is confusing.”

Attorney Ross says that absent congressional action, the earliest he expects guidance from the appellate courts is late 2005. “The problem is that in the meantime, businesses need to figure out how to operate in an uncertain environment,” Ross says. “And that is creating a mess.”

Lisa Picarille is the editor of Revenue.