I haven't seen online ads since about 1995, when HotWired first pioneered annoying, animated banners that detracted from the content. Initially I was using hacks like hosts files and the like, then I started using Craig's Squid-based blocker until these days I use a combination of Adblock Plus, Filterset.G and some Greasemonkey scripts to block some of the more annoying inline ads. Any time an ad gets around these filters, I quickly squish it because I've got used to viewing content without distracting, annoying crap flashing near what I'm trying to read.
Now I'm on the other side of the fence, and we're advertising through some of these ad networks and I've had to test view some of it. First of all, I'm staggered at how intrusive they've become. On some sites like NineMSN, they overlay animations over the actual content! Unbelievable and I'm amazed anyone uses sites that do that kind of thing. Mainstream sites still even use pop-ups and pop-under crap?!?!? I can't believe audiences don't go out of their way to work out how to block all this.
It's quite remarkable how useless the ads are in delivering a valuable audience. I guess it's not particularly surprising. If you're reading about the cyclone relief effort in Burma, you're hardly going to click on an advert for, say, a car. It's a drive-by impression, with similar brand-building impact to a billboard or a display ad in a newspaper.
What's more, the publishers don't help themselves by even further devaluing their impressions. Fairfax sites reload every five minutes, so if someone walks away from their computer, it happily counts impressions with nobody home to see it. That makes me very suspicious of their impression counts. I can't believe the publishers could be so stupid. Google changed the nature of this business by delivering benefits for everyone: advertisers and advertisees, which is why they're make kongbucks. Seems the dead tree purveyors, and those apeing them, haven't worked that out.
So apart from a very cheap (and it would want to be, given the publishers' efforts to devalue the product) brand building exercise, I don't really see the point of display advertising on content sites. It's generally not that relevant, not particularly targetted, and doesn't deliver.
Search engine marketing, however, is gold. I don't filter out ads next to Google searches because they're often actually what I want! If you type in "Marrickville plumber", the ads actually show better results for local plumbers than the search engine results. Everyone wins! If someone clicks on your ad, they're actually very likely to be wanting what you're selling. But it seems the publishers don't understand that to be successful, they need to find a way to make their advertisers successful.
Finally, we're seeing some rather nasty behaviour. The ad network we're using is reporting about 30% more clickthroughs (as recorded by the publishers) than we're seeing actually arrive at the landing page. They claim this is a fairly normal rate. What's going on here? Click fraud?