The Ups & Downs of Online Advertising

In one way or another, I’ve been involved in the online advertising industry for the last 15 years.  I’ve been an advertiser spending 7 figures a year, a publisher earning 7 figures a year and, as the founder of Cubics (the first Facebook Advertising Network), I even was the ad network.

At Ezoic we partner with many different ad networks and exchanges, but our only interest is in providing the best results for our publishing partners.  At certain times of the year we inevitably get questions about short term changes in advertising revenue on each site.  Often these fluctuations are the result of the natural “cycles” of online advertising — one of which we are going through right now (beginning of April).  Here are the most commons ones to watch for:

#1. Brand Budget Cycle

Normally brand advertisers and advertising agencies will allocate their advertising budgets quarter-by-quarter.  Agencies, in particular, are slow to allocate budgets and distribute new advertising materials to their partners at the start of each quarter.  The result is that you will almost always see a 3 – 6 day decrease at the start of each quarter (January, April, July, October).  Similarly, since brand advertisers allocate a certain “spend” each quarter and ad networks will frequently “blast” a campaign in the last few days of a quarter so you’ll often see a temporary increase the last week of each quarter (March, June, September)

#2. Advertising Season Changes

The primary “seasons” for online advertising are:

Holiday: Early November – Monday before Christmas.  (major increases in advertising rates)  Advertisers are looking to drive holiday sales and increased competition drives up prices for publishers.

Post-Holiday: Monday before Christmas – February. (decrease in advertising rates except for fitness and health vertical) The bulk of retail sales during this time period are driven by returns of items purchased during the holiday season so advertisers aren’t spending much.  The exception is the health and fitness vertical which advertises heavily as consumers are often spending in this area in an attempt to fulfill all those New Years resolutions.

Summer: June 1 – Late August. (lowest advertising rates of the year).  The summer months represent the slowest time of the year for online advertising.  Traffic decreases as consumers tend to spend more time outdoors and with their families than online.  It’s time to take some time off, releax and wait for back-to-school…

Back-To-School:  Late August – Mid September (high advertising rates for certain audiences). In North America in particular, the back-to-school season is a major advertising event as households with children purchase school supplies, clothes, laptops, etc for the new year.

That covers the major seasons that you should keep an eye out for.  Hope you enjoyed it!

The ‘site refresh’ vs Continuous Testing

For those publishers who have been publishing content for more than a few years, there is an assumption that every few years you’ll need to do a ‘site refresh’ to update the look of the site and ‘keep it current’. You might even think about getting a mobile site made… The assumption is that once this is all done, you can get back to the real work of creating content until the next refresh in a few years time.

The problem with this thinking is that it’s out of date.

1. Page layouts that do not rely on testing/feedback loops are inherently flawed with bias from the designer. Your site is unique because of it’s keyword profile for organic search. Every decision made for your site should be based on the assumption that it’s not what you like (=personal taste, subjective criteria), or indeed what I might personally prefer, but it’s what the users like, that should count most.

The ‘look’ of a site is subjective to the publisher, but really should be directly related to visitor’s actions & user metrics. It’s very difficult to find the right layout by testing things manually (or guessing the right layout based on personal taste).

2. The speed of online innovation is such that it’s almost impossible for an individual publisher to be able to keep up with all the changes for how your content is being accessed. You might be mobile enabled, but what does your site look like in Opera Mini, or Amazon Silk mobile browsers? How about your menus and images on the latest handset screen size? What about the ads on those devices? What about users who want to access your content from Google Glass or other wearable technology? With mobile impressions sky rocketing, most publishers are still focused on how their content looks on their own PC, for their own screen resolution. It’s hard to visualize, but it’s happening and unless you embrace the continuous future-proofing and testing of your site, you will be missing out on users and revenue as the landscape changes around you.

So, if you haven’t done so – you should seriously consider using Multivariate testing to help you improve user experience metrics (time spent on site, page views per visitor and bounce rate…) and of course increase your revenue from ads.

There’s lots of ad money & UX being left on the table – all you have to do is use the right tools to scoop it all up.

The Science of Constant And Neverending Improvement (CANI or Kaizen カイゼン)

As someone who’s been around in business for a while now, I’ve understood it to be true (almost by osmosis) that the principle of Kaizen was instrumental in helping the Japanese industrial economy recover and succeed after the end of World War Two.  As most of us know, Kaizen is the philosophy and science of constant and never ending improvement (CANI), or betterment or refinement.  It’s the idea that nothing is ever finished, or declared perfect; there is always room for improvement.  As we all know, a series of small incremental improvements over time, add up to huge compounded improvements in the long run (after all, wasn’t it Einstein said that compound interest was ‘the eighth wonder of the world’?)

I see the idea of improving website layouts being our never-ending goal.  It’ll never be finished. There is always more juice in that orange.  For example, we recently integrated some new technology for serving ads, which, when combined with some new user experience improvement tests that platform was trying, resulted in a huge hike in desktop and mobile income and user experience (UX).  It was a change that was easily transferable, so we’ve already started rolling out these improvements to all our sites.  Those beta partner sites will, of course, receive the benefit of this compounding uptick.  One change, giving a 30% improvement this week will be compounded and rolled together with future improvements for all sites (it’s effectively like crowdsourcing user experience results into a testing engine.)  The leverage is enormous.

So, here’s a thought for anyone who is redesigning their site and thinking their job will soon be done when they’ve completed their ‘site makeover’.  It won’t be.  It’s just the beginning.

Happy New Year – Be Brave in 2014 (try new things)

It’s been a whilst since we posted here, so just a few words about progress at Ezoic, before the main blog piece, which was first written for Website Magazine.

Working in beta means learning a lot and listening to feedback.  We’ve done a lot of that this year.  Since we launched the service in beta, we’ve learned how to take our product from suiting just ourselves (we did all our major product testing on our own test websites) to improving the UI, user experience and ad income for all our publishers and giving them a vastly improved service.  Never ending improvement is our motto and we’ll continue on our quest into 2014.

So, Happy New Year to all our lovely publishers!  Please keep the feedback coming and thanks again for your business this year.  We look forward to an ever-improving 2014 for you, us and most importantly of all – for all our users!

Here’s the full blog article:

Multivariate Testing: Top 5 Concerns For Informational Website Owners (and How to Address Them)

As the saying goes, “You can’t please all of the people, all of the time.” So, how about pleasing ‘most of the people, most of the time’? If you’re an informational website owner aiming to improve session time, page views, bounce rate and ad revenue – then multivariate testing (MVT) is the biggest lever you can pull to accelerate your site’s overall performance. The trouble is, even though the results are attractive, it can be a slightly daunting prospect.

Here are the top five concerns for most webmasters about multivariate testing (and some explanations to help put your mind at ease).
1. WHAT IS MULTIVARIATE TESTING? ISN’T THAT JUST FOR E-COMMERCE SITES?
No. Informational publishers are now adopting this methodology to improve visitor experience and display ad revenue. Multivariate, or split testing, is the process used to test a hypothesis online. Usually, this is done by showing multiple page variants of the same content to separate user segments and comparing the results. E-commerce sites do this all the time to improve sales. Amazon famously tested and retested their ‘add to cart’ button (orange works best, who knew?!).
2. I LIKE MY SITE THE WAY IT IS…WHY SHOULD I CHANGE IT?
Whether you designed your site from scratch, or chose a template you thought looked nice, there will be some personal bias built into the site’s layout and ‘look’. Some of this bias will get in the way of optimal user experience. The position of your site’s menus, icons, content, ads and images all effect usability. While personalization of a site is great, the ‘look’ of a site is only a small part of what makes it unique. If you contemplate for a moment why your site gets traffic, it’s because of your content, not its looks.
In the same way that an e-commerce site’s purchase process is repeatedly optimized to give shoppers the most frictionless buying experience, a content site must deliver information to visitors in a seamless and intuitive way. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so you should let go of subjective attachment to what you think looks good and be open to testing change. If it’s not to your personal taste, but your visitors like it more, then isn’t that what matters most?
3. WHAT IF MY SITE’S VISITORS DON’T LIKE THE CHANGES?
As the Guardian newspaper did when they announced their own mobile-site testing program, you may need to explain to your loyal visitors that site improvement is good for everyone in the long run: “By listening to our users and observing how you use the site, we improve incrementally. We release products and features bit by bit, learning as we go along. Some ideas make it through, some don’t. The quicker we know what works and what doesn’t, the quicker your experience will improve.”
But let’s face it, not everyone is going to be enamored with the changes you’re making. People don’t like change. So if you want to improve, you’ll have to be prepared for some negativity from a vocal minority. However, if time-on-site and page views per user go up, and bounce rate goes down – that’s positive feedback from the silent majority of visitors.
4. THE COST OF TESTING: WON’T I LOSE MONEY?
As an informational publisher, most of your income probably comes from display ad placements. It’s the ads that keep the site going and give you an income. The questions are: Where should you place them? What about on mobile and tablet? How do you test placements? The answers could fill a whole separate article, but it’s safe to say that testing new ad placements to improve your average income per thousand visits (EPMV) is a delicate business.
Some of your tests won’t work and will generate less revenue than your original layout. Some will outperform for a short time and then drop back as more data comes in. However, when you get enough data and make adjustments, you begin to unlock your site’s true potential to increase revenue and improve user experience. MVT can make sure ads are placed where visitors are most likely to see them, but also balance that with how long your visitors stick around and engage (the last part is crucial).
5. HOW LONG WILL I HAVE TO TEST FOR?
Testing is a continuous cycle of improvement based on visitor responses. When will Amazon stop testing their site? Probably never. How long does it take to see improved overall results (like increased time on site, page views per user and increased income)? It all depends on how much data you can generate and how quickly you can implement changes. If you have about 2,000 daily visitors, it will take about 1-2 weeks to get some statistically relevant results that add to your bottom line or overall user metrics. If you’re constructing your own experiments, or have a smaller site, it will take longer than that.
EVOLUTION NOT REVOLUTION
Successful websites take a lot of time and effort to build, but it’s worth it in the end. Multivariate testing is the next logical step for any publisher; it’s using science to take what’s already been created and make it better. The end result is that you can have a site that is improving all the time, making more money and is more appealing to your users too. What’s not to like about that?
- See more at: http://www.websitemagazine.com/content/blogs/posts/archive/2013/12/23/multivariate-testing-top-5-concerns-for-informational-website-owners-and-how-to-address-them.aspx#sthash.hoPF9M0a.dpuf

 

 

Empirical Design. Can a computer really design a better site than you?

 

When iOS7 came out a few days ago, I was struck by how evolutionary design improvement has become. I’ve already forgotten what iOS6 was like. In my mind it’s now a relic, useful at the time, but now surpassed and bettered. All those subtle changes Apple engineers and designers made to improve how I use my phone. And as a user, I don’t notice all of them consciously. I just know that I like it better this way.

And so it should be with website design. I am convinced that web design will become part of a feedback process. New designs will be continually rolled out and optimised for user experience (but updated much more regularly than iOS). Used, loved, forgotten, replaced.

If you think back over the last 10-15 years, website owners and developers have traditionally made huge efforts with a ‘new look’ or a ‘site upgrade.’ Some unfortunate people I have known in the past have spent a ton of money on their ‘new’ site and sadly, a lot of this effort and money was wasted.

It’s the content, especially the raw ‘structured content’ that form the essential building blocks of any great informational site. After all, it’s not the ‘design’ of an informational site that shows up in search results – it’s the results of a specific user query.

User behaviour statistics are easier than ever to access. Google Analytics will give you bounce rates, time on site, page views per user and a hundred other parameters that are all easily measured. So it makes sense to move toward totally empirical design; where thousands of layout changes are tested and run against each other simultaneously. And the feedback from those tests drive the way a site looks. All those hundreds of design changes and decisions have to be weighed against one another to improve overall usability – now that sounds like a job for a computer, right?

Does this mean ‘The End’ of the web developer? Far from it. Did digital animation replace hand-drawn animation? Was Art replaced by Photography? Of course not. Human creativity and flair are absolutely essential in the process – but the design interface is changing. Empirical design, as it gathers momentum, will become like a free usability upgrade – but for the whole web. How cool is that?!

Testing shows how much you love your users

One of the challenges of doing something new is the need to educate prospective partners/customers. Let’s be honest – anyone who blazes a trail has their work cut out. We have conversations with site owners about what we do, and as the idea of ‘content layout optimization’ is fairly new to them, we are starting from scratch in many cases. Not just ‘who is Ezoic and what do we do’, but the whole concept of ‘content layout optimization’ has to be tackled as well.

One challenge that comes immediately to mind, is helping our customers to embrace the concept of ‘objective testing over subjective beauty’. If you’ve been doing this ‘by eye’ for years and years, it’s hard to stand back and let a computer do it for you. After all, even the most skilled and experienced human cannot test hundreds and thousands of variables to see what their users like best. It’s akin to an ATM replacing a teller at a bank; some people liked the personal interaction, but at the end of the day, the world moved on and now it’s part of every day life. We think layout optimization will go the same way.

And our enlightened publishers all agree; “Yes, I want to make more money from the content I’ve produced and yes, I would also like to improve my site’s usability and get improved time on site, page views per user, and yes – a free mobile and tablet enabled version of my site would be awesome”. Sure. Who wouldn’t want all that? And the Ezoic system will have produced smart, snappy new versions of the site on desktop, mobile and tablet and test to see what the users like best. For some site owners though, there can be a period of, well how do I put this  - mourning – for their old site.  And that is a shame. To be blunt, I think they have it backwards. Attachment to the ‘old look’ is to deny the potential of what they have created. It’s not the look of the site that will be a site owner’s online legacy; it’s the original content they created. In the information age, this is what people want – access to the content.

Whether the content is about beekeeping, green bean growing, roman history or crochet patterns, it’s the content itself that matters.  Pride in having built a wonderful resource that people can use in the future, on every conceivable device – that’s where the satisfaction should be for the publisher; not in how it used to look in 2013.

So come on lovely publishers – be proud of your amazing content, not its looks.

The Journey Begins: Why We Built Ezoic

More than 6 years ago, I started Cubics, the first Facebook Ad Network for application developers.  When we launched, it was the only way for individual application developers to get something back for all the hard work they put into their Facebook applications.  Back in those days, Facebook applications were largely made by individuals, not professional companies. For several years, I had the pleasure of working very closely with those small application developers and I learnt a lot, but one thing that stood out in my mind was that no matter what the content or application, the layout that the application used was extremely important.

AT Cubics, we had a amazing engineering team, a team of data scientists and all the resources in the world working on solving the typical ad network problem of “What ad do we show to this user right now?”.  Despite all our resources and all our efforts, we were never able to match the results that could be gained by having the application developer improve their layout.  It was then that I realized that we were all working to solve the wrong problem.  In 2010, we started Ezoic to solve the right problem…

Our goal at Ezoic is to help the owners of small informational websites improve the layout of their websites to maximize revenue and enhance user experience.  We’ve been building our the technology for nearly 3 years and have quietly deployed it on hundred of websites reaching more than 20,000,000 individuals each month.  We’re currently in private beta — making sure everything is just right.  If you have your own site, I encourage you to join the beta here: http://www.ezoic.com/signup.php