A Web Shift in the Way Advertisers Seek Clicks

Tyler Townsend, a digital media manager who plans online advertising for travel clients at Ypartnership, an agency in Orlando, had $150,000 to spend on behalf of a Caribbean island’s visitors bureau. And this client did not care about branding — it wanted action.

So Mr. Townsend, who once might have made a simple buy on a site like Yahoo, created a complex campaign, which ran in March. He bought ads on Budget Travel, and he bought out Lonely Planet’s home page for a week. He used custom ad networks that included travel-themed sites, and another that would put the ads only on high-end sites.

Last year, Mr. Townsend said, many clients were happy to spend money just to raise awareness. Since January, however, “everyone’s retail-oriented. They want as many clicks for the dollar as possible,” he said.

So far, the threat of a recession has not slowed the migration of ad dollars to the Internet — as Google’s strong results showed on Thursday, when it reported a 30 percent jump in net income for its first quarter. But as Mr. Townsend’s campaign suggests, the slowing economy might be changing where those ad dollars are being spent.

Increasingly, marketers are looking to ad networks, which sell display advertising across groups of Web sites. Some networks offer targeted advertising; others, called vertical ad networks, include sites that focus on one subject, like travel or sports.

Their growth could mean a lower share of advertising for portals like AOL and particularly for Yahoo , which is particularly strong in traditional display advertising. (Yahoo will report its quarterly earnings on Tuesday.)

In 2007, United States revenue growth slowed at three of the four major portals (Yahoo, AOL and Google) according to an analysis by eMarketer. The fourth is MSN. Any downturn could also be bad news for media sites that attract a lot of display advertising, like CNN.com or nytimes.com, at premium rates.

In the United States, $21.1 billion was spent on online advertising last year, up from $16.9 billion in 2006, according to eMarketer. Search advertising — Google’s stronghold — is the majority of that spending, according to Jeffrey Lindsay, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein.

According to a report by Imran Khan, an Internet analyst at JPMorgan Chase, ad networks “are growing much faster than the general graphical advertising industry.” He estimated that the top 20 ad networks had earned $2 billion in 2007, or 14 percent of the display market.

The reasons ad networks are thriving are price and improved technology. Ad networks charge much lower cost per thousand ads served (known as CPMs), as low as $4 on an ad network with some targeting, compared with $40 and up for some ads on premium sites like MSN or Yahoo.

“While the home pages are still very effective media buys, the price tags on them have become a little outrageous for many advertisers. For all the growth that has gone on from a site standpoint, there are other ways to amass that type of audience fairly quickly that are more efficient,” said Margaret Clerkin, the chief executive of Mindshare Interaction, a media-buying firm.

The improved technology has helped. Ad networks once served ads to pages where no advertiser wanted to be, like pages that get few hits or those with controversial content. Now, though, many attractive sites are not major home pages. Also, many ad networks now offer targeting (as do portals, for a higher price), matching ads to likely buyers.

For example, if an airline wants to promote a flight from Dallas to Chicago, it can direct those ads to users with Internet addresses from those areas. Marketers can also direct ads by content: a reader on a cellphone ratings site is probably looking to buy a new phone, while another reader on the Yahoo technology home page might be browsing stories about Wi-Fi and not looking to buy anything.

David Metter, chief marketing officer of MileOne/Atlantic Automotive, a group of car dealerships with over 3,000 employees, said that it was possible to “blow your spend” on a home page ad.

“I would much rather get more specific and go to the customers and have maybe less eyeballs and higher quality eyeballs, or less leads and higher quality leads,” he said.

Based on the success of ad networks, some big players are buying their way into the game. Yahoo bought BlueLithium for $300 million last September. Last July, AOL bought Tacoda for a reported $275 million, and in November, it bought Quigo Technologies for a reported $350 million. Last May, Microsoft bought aQuantive, which owns some ad networks through a subsidiary, for $6 billion. DoubleClick, which also owns ad networks, was acquired by Google for $3.1 billion. Dozens of other networks have sprung up — one tally at eConsultant lists more than 80.

“There’s no slowdown in terms of a really targeted ad spend,” said Mitch Lowe, whose network, Jumpstart Automotive Media, handles ads for 12 automotive sites. (Jumpstart was sold to Hachette Filipacchi Media last year for $110 million.)

However, the reliance on ad networks mean that two of their major attractions — that they are simple and that they are cheaper — are diminished.

“These are the gold rush days now for ad networks,” said David Hallerman, senior analyst with eMarketer. “And that kind of counters the appeal of ad networks for advertisers’ agencies, which was to simplify the purchase of ads. And that’s why its unlikely that a great number of ad networks will survive.”

Even given the choice of ad networks, the continued flow of dollars online means that prices are rising.

Mr. Townsend says that his clients were happy with their campaign and want him to do a similar one. Except this time, they want him to hit the networks even harder.

“We thought,” Mr. Townsend said, “for this amount of dollars, we can get you this many more impressions than we did.”