Saturday, June 7, 2008

Review of Adspeed, a remotely hosted ad-rotation and ad-management service

This is an exciting new post in this blog, it is an on-going review of my experience with the Adspeed remotely-hosted ad-managament service. This service allows you to rotate various ads and banners on your website or blog and use a number of sophisticated features, such as giving ads different weights, adjusting which ads are displayed by geography (eg Japanese visitors can see Amazon Japan ads, French visitors can see eBay France ads, etc), and a whole lot more!

The latest updates are at the bottom of the blog - it is posted in chronological order. Here is a quick navigation guide:

  1. The Options and Alternatives
  2. Decision to try Adspeed
  3. Day 1 with Adspeed
  4. Day 2 with Adspeed
  5. Day 3
  6. Day 4
  7. Week 1 continues
  8. Week 2
  9. Practical and Tangible Benefits so far

This is not a paid review, and this is not a paid placement. The links to Adspeed are affiliate links.

The Need for an ad management service
I am participating in a number of affiliate and advertising programs, including CJ (Commission Junction), Linkshare, Google Doubleclick Performics, new eBay, Kolimbo, Amazon, AdSense, Chitika, and more. While some, like CJ and Linkshare and Kolimbo offer a way to rotate ads from their own service, there is no simple way to rotate ads from multiple programs on the same spot, especially if you are using a blogservice-hosted blog.

The Options: Your own ad server (hardware and software)
The most flexible option is to run your own ad-server. You can create your ad-server scripts or software, buy or license ready-made ad-server software packages or scripts, or use the free or shareware scripts and services. One popular option is the free ad server provided by the good people at OpenX (Open Ads).

However these options require a lot of IT resources, you need to run your own ad-server, maintain the ad-server, maintain and license software, and a slew of other webmaster tasks. While a good idea for bigger sites and blogs, if you are an individual blogger, or a small group of bloggers, even if you are tech-savvy and love configuring and maintaining computers, the IT work can eat up a significant chunk of your time you could otherwise devote to your blog content or your blog networking and promotion.

So for me, this was not an option! I do not have the time or the energy or the interest to play webmaster and IT guru. So on to the next option...

The Options: Remotely-hosted automated ad-service
Now if you are a hands-off person and you want no control over this process, and you don't mind handing over all the login information of your various affiliate and advertising programs to a 3rd party, then you can try the Rubicon Project or the other similar service whose name escapes me at the moment.

I have major objections to giving my login information to 3rd parties, plus I want to have control over which ads are displayed and which ones get a higher weight than others. There are various reasons for doing this, but that's another story. So while the Rubicon Project and other similar services may be a good idea for some, they are not for me.

The Options: Remotely-hosted hands-on ad-service
This is what is ideal for me. I don't have to worry about installing and running a server, I am not giving anyone my login information to all my affiliate programs, and I have complete control over the running and balancing of the ads.

If you have very low traffic there are a few of services that offer a free ad-rotation service in exchange for a portion of your ad-traffic. For example, they take 10% of your ad impressions and display their own ads, in exchange for the free service. AdSpeed has this option as well. The percentages and terms vary from ad-service to ad-service, so be sure to check them out.

The blog I am using this service on has around 100K page hits per month, so I wanted something that wouldn't eat my impressions and I am willing to pay a small monthly fee.

The problem is that there is a big gap between the free services and most of the professional-quality services. The latter usually start at $50 to $100+++ per month even if you have relatively low traffic (eg 100K monthly hits). They also charge a one-time high set-up fee (three to four figures) that significantly raises the starting price for small and medium blogs and sites.

Even worse, just to find more information (eg detailed features or prices) or run a demo, you have to talk to their old-school 1-800-toll-free sales representatives. As a blogger I'm not getting paid to talk on the phone for hours or play phone-tag all day. On the other hand, a sales rep is getting paid to talk on the phone for hours. Ouch! Way too expensive and time-consuming for my needs.

And in this gap between the freebies and the expensives is where Adspeed fits right in, since they offer a variety of scalable plans, for blogs and sites big and small. The lowest professional plan is $10/month plan for 100k monthly ad impressions. If you exceed that limit, they won't cut you off, but after about a month of being above your limit, they expect you to add an extra 100K ad impressions for another $10. Or jump to the 300K monthly impressions tier for $25 total per month. Do note that impressions refer to ad-impressions, not page impressions. Meaning that if you put 10 different ad-boxes on your blog, each time someone visits your website, they count as 10 ad-impressions (at least that's my understanding of it). Not sure how it counts if you put two or more ads in a single ad-slot.

So the idea is to start with one ad-box, pick your most visible or high profile spot. If the ad-server proves successful there, and improves your ad or affiliate revenues, then you also consider trying it in other ad spots as well. Or if you have two spots and you are not sure which one is better, set them both up and watch how they perform for a few days. This is what I am doing in trying to figure out whether the vertical skyscraper or the horizontal banner are to be the new premier ad spot on my blog.

The big two FREE remotely-hosted ad-services are currently in beta
That's right, both Google and OpenX (Open Ads) currently have their own implementions of FREE remotely-hosted ad-management services. Unfortunately both of these services are currently in private beta, so unless you are one of the lucky few that is in the beta, you cannot use these promising FREE services at this very moment.

I love FREE! However, neither OpenX nor Google's remote ad-services are available. So I had to chose between the limited free ad-services or the for-pay ad-services. Because Adspeed was one of the few sites that had a live ad-server demo running (so does OpenX), I was able to play with it and liked it enough so that it jumped ahead of all the other contenders.

AdSpeed Day Zero (May 2008)
As just mentioned, Adspeed already has a live ad-server demo running on their website. You can play with it, create sample ads and zones or look at what other people have created. You can also look at the code generation process, and play with just about everything the ad service offers.

This fully functional demo convinced me to give AdSpeed a try. Adspeed offers a 10-day free trial (maximum 50,000 impressions for the period), and also a 30-day money back guarantee.

AdSpeed Day One (June 7, 2008)
Signing up is fast and easy. I selected the 10-day free trial which has 50,000 max impressions, filled in a few entries and in just seconds, I received an email with my activation.

The user interface is mostly text-based with embedded help in the right sidebar, and also helpful links for most of the fields and parameters you chose. This is good! I do not like unnecessary graphics, and this looks like it was designed with a speedy workflow in mind.

Then next major step was to create a zone, a spot on the blog where the ads would be running. Once you create a zone, then you have to create ads that run in that zone.

Creating ads was fast too, you can use traditional HTML links (image and destination link), or cut/paste the ad code in a window, or text-links or for an additional fee upload your ad banner/media to the Adspeed server. I am not using that optional feature at the moment, nor I plan to.

You can have multiple size ads in the same ad zone (same ad spot on your blog), so you can mix and match 125x125 boxes with 120x600 banners and just about anything else. I like this freedom of choice. But obviously you have to be careful to use these in blog templates that are free-flowing. If you have a fixed template, you have to make sure that the ad sizes you pick are visually and practically compatible with your template. Also note that the generated Javascript code includes the ad-sizes, so it's a good idea to first add all the ads to a zone, and then generate the "serving code" that goes on to your website's designated ad spot.

Adding the ads was fairly easy to do as well. Within a few minutes I added four different ads, and added the zone code (choice of javascript or iframe) to my blog. And voila, without any waiting, the ads were up and running. I did a few reloads and sure enough I saw the different ads I had picked. I also tested them to make sure they work. Remember not to click on any of your own CPC/PPC ads though!

And there was no wait for the reports to start getting populated either. The main stats page automatically updates every 15 seconds. You can also drill down to a multitude of reports, the sheer volume and options of which was overwhelming at first sight. If you love reports, you will love this feature! They also have charts (area, line, column, 3d column), and the charts are generated using Flash. If you are running Adblock or Flashblock, you will have to manually enable the charts.

Adspeed also has an affiliate program for referring new clients, which I discovered while using their Help pages.

Overall I'm very impressed on Day One. I do have a small workflow issue though: When you create an ad, a new information page loads that says the creation was successful and if you want to do anything else you have to click on something again and load a new page. I think it would be more efficient if the confirmation happened in the previous page, or the confirmation page included direct action options. That would save an extra page load and speed up the ad data entry process.

AdSpeed Day Two (June 8, 2008)
The first stumble I had was trying to have specific ads run for specific regions, for example, eBay France for French readers. The restrictions page within the ad itself is way too long and overwhelming. Apparently you have to fill 20+ fields of information even if you only want to restrict an ad for one of the parameters. Or perhaps I don't quite understand how this feature works yet. This was a problem with my browser, namely Firefox 3 Release Candidate 1. I tried the same task with IE7 after talking to customer service, and it worked just fine as expected. You pick a restriction from a drop down menu, add the restriction rules, and add it up. Then you can add more restrictions if you like. This is a very nice feature actually. Hopefully Firefox 3 release candidate 2 will have fixed the issue. Will post an update after I download and retry it with Firefox3 RC2.

Another option for geo-dividing ads is to use Zones. Each zone has a backup zone, and you can daisy-chain zones. So for example Zone A restricts French viewers, and its back up, Zone B has an ad for French viewers. Similarly you could restrict Italian viewers in Zones A and B, and have an eBay Italy ad in Zone C. Of course in the case of eBay, you can just let the new eBay affiliate geo-tagging links figure it out on their own.

I also "discovered" Groups, which is only an organizational tool. You cannot use Groups to run ads but you can use it to run reports.

Speaking of reports, after a few hours of playing with them, they are no longer overwhelming. I'm not afraid of you reports!!! One very minor thing that is missing from the hourly reports under the "Basics" category is horizontal totals (line totals) for ad impressions. For example, you can see how many impressions per hour each ad had, but there's no total for each particular ad. Now if it's a small number of hours and impressions you can do the math in your head, but for a busy day, a horizontal total in the Hourly report would be great! Please note that you can get the totals if you check the Daily or Weekly or Monthly or Yearly reports. I am only "complaining" about the Hourly report. This feature has been added to the AdSpeed Hourly Reports - in blazing speed I should add!

Another thing that I'm not sure it can be done straight up is to give a specific ad different weights in different zones. For example if I want Ad #4 to have a weight of 8 in Zone A and a weight of 3 in Zone B, the only way to do this (as far as I can tell) is to create the ad twice. That doesn't take long to do, but if you are doing this for multiple ads, it may create some clutter and confusion.

For those who like to multi-task heavily, you will find the user interface irritating because most of the options when using the ad-service can't open in a new window. You have to continue doing stuff in the same window. If you are a heavy multi-tasker this is very annoying. If you type with two fingers and do one thing at a time, this is a non-issue, but if not, this feels like a roadblock.

AdSpeed Day Three (June 9, 2008)
I submitted a question to the customer support during the weekend, and had detailed and on-the-money answers before noon on Monday! That is very good!

And after the CS email, it looks like the issue I was talking above on restrictions per ad was a problem with Firefox 3 Release Candidate 1. I tried the same task with IE7 and works just fine! I have updated that area under Day Two to reflect this, see the Updated paragraph.

Added a second ad spot, a traditional banner which is served through Adbrite. Trying to figure out whether to use the banner (horizontal) or the skyscraper (vertical) as my feature ad-spot to optimize. Adspeed will hopefully be a good tool in figuring this out!

Also added a new segment below on the practical benefits so far.

AdSpeed Day Four (June 10, 2008)
I must say I'm very impressed with the speed of Adspeed's customer service. One of the items I mentioned in my feedback was that the Hourly reports did not have horizontal (line-item) totals. And now this feature has been added to the AdSpeed site! Well done Adspeed team and thanks! Details.

The ad server itself is going along, serving and measuring two different ad spots as mentioned above.

Week #1 continues
I was just amazed at how fast I was able to add an Amazon Father's Day last-minute gift card banner ad, give it a high priority so it would run through Father's Day, and see it go live, all in a manner of 200 seconds! The AdServer behind the scenes appears to be blazing fast! The web-based user interface is not blazing fast, but there's no need for it to be.

Week #2
Switched from the free trial to the Premium 100 plan (100K monthly ad-impressions for $10/month). Signing up for the plan is very fast and easy. They prorate the current month at the current rate (eg half of $10 for the remaining half of June) and then bill you on the first of each month for the new month.

I have already experimented with the traditional vertical skyscraper ads (160x600, 120x600, etc), and the traditional banner (468x60) ads. Next experiment will be the 125x125 boxes which seem to be very popular among the bloggers out there. Since Adspeed allows flexible ad sizes (assuming of course they fit into your blog's template), I will also try a few other sizes in the same spot, eg 120x90, 120x60, etc. More on these after the experiment gets under way.

The AdSpeed server has been very reliable, I have not seen an instance of a page load where an ad was not loaded. Not only that, but changes seem to propagate in mere seconds, which is quite impressing.

In comparison, when you make a typo in a url using Adbrite (this is the url displayed unless you have Adbrite ads that meet your minimum CPM rate), you have to wait for a few hours before the new new url is picked up by their system. And I have noticed that in some instances AdBrite misfires and does not deliver an ad (either time-out or nothing). Of course Adbrite is a different service, but the reason I am mentioning it is that one of my experiments was delivering the AdSpeed ads through AdBrite, which obviously adds an extra layer.

If you have any questions, please leave them as comments or send via email (email is the name of the blog at gmail dot com). Name of the blog before the in the url, and after the http:// :)

Stay tuned for more rumblings...

Practical and Tangible Benefits of AdSpeed so far
So what are the practical and tangible benefits for my blog with AdSpeed? It's too early to tell in terms of monetization, but here are the practical benefits:
  1. Able to mix in affiliate ads, traditional ads, and my own promotional ads with just a few clicks.
  2. Solid statistical data that lets me double-check what the individual ad and affiliate networks are reporting in terms of traffic and ad impressions. It's the old Trust but Verify.
  3. I am starting to see by looking at the AdSpeed data that the horizontal banner is more successful than the skyscraper/vertical block. Both above the fold. Without the data from AdSpeed, figuring this out would have been very time consuming as I would have to go through multiple ad/affiliate reports, and that's assuming that I tagged each one with a unique identifier. This was one of the big questions I was curious about, and it looks like Adspeed is providing an efficient way to answer this.
  4. Able to use Chitika and eBay as alternatives in countries I don't have affiliate/ad programs. So instead of showing them ads of retailers that don't ship to their country, I am using Chitika and eBay. Chitika's International program covers a number of countries including France, Italy, UK, and Australia. By eBay I am referring to the new eBay affiliate program ran by eBay, not the old one ran by Commission Junction. Apparently now eBay is also avaialble through Pepperjam. That's something else I may try and live-blog as well.
  5. Individual ad restrictions allow me to not show specific ads when a store is not taking orders or their website is down for maintenance or other reasons (even Amazon has an occasional hickup). Some stores are not taking orders at certain times for religious reasons, so showing an affiliate ad at that time does not help the affiliate.
  6. Flexible ad size allows me to create a more dynamic look in the sidebar, so you can get a tiny ad box or a giant 160x600 skyscraper. This of course assuming you have a blog template that is not fixed in size. Doing this for banner ads (horizontal) is more difficult, even if you have a flexible template, since screen sizes vary from computer to computer. I am keeping the banner ad fixed to 468x60 at the moment.
  7. You can serve multiple ads per slot. For example if you have a zone that is composed of lots and lots of 125x125 boxes, you could show two or three or four them.

This is an on-going review!
This is an on-going review, it will be updated frequently. I cannot promise daily updates, but I will try to post updates as often as I can.

Feedback and Questions?
Please leave your comments or questions or thoughts or thoughts in the Comments section right below.


Oliver George said...

Hello from OpenX!

Did you register to participate in our hosted beta trial? I can't see you there but it's a bit difficult tell.

Perhaps we can get you on board in the next round of testers. Shoot me an email if you are interested.

Oliver George
OpenX Limited

1001 blog tips said...

Thanks for the comment and for reading my long-winded post! Will follow up via email!

Anonymous said...

I am starting to see by looking at the AdSpeed data that the horizontal banner is more successful than the skyscraper/vertical block.

Please explain how you came to this conclusion?

1001 blog tips said...

Thanks for the question! I meant more successful in terms of getting more clicks.

This of course it is meant only within the context of this particular experiment, it is not a general statement about all websites and blogs.

Scott Switzer said...

Hi -

We are developing a plug-in for simple daisy-chaining on OpenX. It sounds like this is what you are trying to achieve. If you (or anyone in your community) is interested in helping specify or develop the daisy chain plug-in, I would welcome the help! Contact me scott [at] openx [dot] org.

Scott Switzer

1001 blog tips said...

Thanks for the update!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your positive sentiments about the adspeed system. Of all the adservers I have tried, adspeed is just very easy to use and I had my ads up quickly. All I could ask for.

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