An open ad network opens for business

OpenX is building the start of a new, more open ad network infrastructure.

My Guardian column this week starts with a recast of my blog post about Google Ad Manager and then breaks a wee bit of news:

OpenX (nee OpenAds, nee phpAds) is putting together the elements of what I hope can become an open ad architecture that could compete with Google and create a more transparent marketplace that will support the creation of many more sites (I’ve been wishing for this for more than two years). OpenX is already serving about 200 billion ads over 30,000 sites each month with its free software. What I’ve been urging that they do is tie that together into a network that advertisers can pick and choose from for ad hoc networks of quality sites.

Today, I was told by OpenX founder and CTO Scott Switzer, they will have the first piece of that puzzle: an ID structure that will cookie users across any participating site.

Next, in the second quarter, they plan to deliver a bidding infrastructure so agencies and networks can buy ads on any of those sites. Thus an agency could put together an ad hoc network of great mommy blogs, or an existing network like Federated could augment its own sites with others sites that are using OpenX. And a site can take high-value ads from one network today and another agency tomorrow and backfill with ads from a remnant network — including, apparently, Google itself. So both the publisher and the site recognize higher value and that, I believe, is what can propel sites of any size to put together highly targeted and flexible networks that reach critical mass and offer greater quality than portals, which are merely collections of eyeballs.

And next will come a hosted ad serving service, which is now in beta; this would enable any site without benefit of a 16-year-old son and webmaster to serve ads from most anywhere.

What they’re really creating is an open ad call, since any other network or server can serve ads through OpenX. That, I believe, is the keystone to creating a new and more open ad architecture. That, I hope, is what will enable most any advertiser to place ads on most any site.

Switzer told me that they are being advised by a panel of sites, agencies, advertisers, and networks large and small.

Here’s where I hope this goes next, from my Guardian column:

Once we have an open ad network, we’ll also be able to expose data about sites and ad performance. We would establish the true value of our new medium, especially when we can track new metrics: behaviour, interest, influence, authority, the timing and spread of ideas, and so on. As an ad blogger once said: instead of measuring impressions, we’d measure the impressed. Or to twist another ad cliche: let’s stop reaching eyeballs and start reaching brains.

My hope is that an open infrastructure would encourage the creation of many new companies. Let’s start with a wealth of new content sites: niche interest blogs, hyperlocal blogs, innovative services, new, small-scale journalism. Next we’ll see new analytics companies that would help advertisers find their ideal buys. And we’d see a host of networks spring out of ad agencies and media companies to help us poor bloggers make a living.

The Guardian started such a network gathering green blogs. The Washington Post put together networks for high-value content areas such as travel. And last week in 13 US markets, CBS TV launched a network that places widgets containing news and ads – with promotions for stations – on local blogs.

So now the battle is on. Will big media brands, Google’s ad network or an open network win more of the online ad market? The stakes are growing ever bigger: last week, General Motors announced that it will move half its $3bn ad budget online. I’m just hoping that one of these networks will bring a few of those dollars on to my humble blog.