FAST Offers Publishers a Google AdSense Alternative

Rob Hof

Google has offered struggling newspapers and other publishers a Faustian bargain. Through the search giant's AdSense programs, ads get placed on their sites, bringing in revenue that they wouldn't have gotten before. But some people wonder if they're essentially giving up their relationships with advertisers down the road.

Fast Search & Transfer, a Norwegian search technology company, has just introduced what it believes will give some power back to the publishers. AdMomentum is a sort of private-labeled AdSense, a contextual search ad service that will let publishers run their own ad networks. Although FAST didn't share much in the way of technical details with me (no doubt quickly realizing I'm not yet an expert in the intricacies of ad networks), the basic idea is to let publishers who have been depending largely or solely on AdSense to run their own sponsored ads.

Besides giving them more control of the ads on their sites, this could also help them create more attractive ad inventory on their sites: With their extensive knowledge of their readers, they could offer up even more relevant ads. For instance, an electronics magazine could make sure that when someone searches for the word "chip," ads for semiconductor-related services, not for Lay's potato crisps, come up. And with a shortage of good inventory--that is, pages most likely to result in people clicking on ads placed on them--advertisers are hungry for anything that will produce more places to get in front of potential customers.

For now, AdMomentum is being tested at 10 sites, only three fully live--a local search portal for Scandinavia, Yellow Pages in Australia, and business directory in the U.S. So Google's not exactly quaking in its boots. And of course it's not alone. Quigo's AdSonar also offers private-labeled ad networks. (Update: The folks at Marchex note that their IndustryBrains contextual ad service is used by more than 100 publishers, including, ahem, BusinessWeek Online.)

But I'm betting publishers and advertisers are more than ready for an alternative, even if it doesn't replace Google's AdSense (which it almost certainly won't). Reed Business, one of Reed Elsevier's units, is using AdSense now across all its properties, says Steve Baker, the unit's CEO for search. But he's checking out FAST's service to see if it could offer both a better search service for readers and better lead generation for advertisers.

If it works as billed, AdMomentum could signal the start of a new era in ad networks. "It's a digital marketplace in a box," says Sue Feldman, research VP at IDC. "It's going to allow big content creators to build ad networks. We're on track to the long tail of ad revenue."

Update: Andy Beal's skeptical, wondering if AdMomentum will end up being merely a bargaining chip for its users to extract a better deal from Google.