News Sites Need Less Banner, More Targeted Ads

What is the biggest ad category on news Web sites? News sites themselves or their parent companies, making up more than 21% of display ads. That finding from a new Pew Research Center study underscores the challenge news organizations face in building digital ad revenue. For newspapers with shrinking print circulations, that problem is especially worrisome.

Pew research spanning 22 major news sites, including,, and, found that most have failed to persuade traditional advertisers to shift dollars online or move into more lucrative areas, like serving targeted ads. For the most part, they still rely heavily on standard banner ads from many of the same advertisers. 

“The presence of so many ads that are identical across so many sites could be a signal that these are very inexpensive ads, perhaps even sold through third-party networks sharing in whatever revenue the ads are bringing in,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

After house ads, financial services made up the largest ad category on news sites, accounting for 18% of ads. No other industry vertical made up more than 5% of advertising. Most were for credit cards or consumer loans rather than investments or retail banking. had the highest proportion of financial ads -- at 44.6% -- while had the least, with 1.8%.

By contrast, financial advertising plays only a small role in most of the legacy platforms of news sites covered in the study. That highlights the difficulty that traditional media companies have had luring existing advertisers to print. On CNN, for instance, the three main TV ad categories were movies and television, insurance and telecom. But on, finance, toiletries and cosmetics, and job search were the top segments. 

The difference between the online and offline ad markets was especially apparent with magazines. For magazine sites studied (,, and, fully half the ads were house ads. But in their print versions, only 10% were self-promotional.

Among online-only news outlets -- Google News, Yahoo News and the AOL-owned Huffington Post -- Google has only house ads, while the other two sites feature few house ads, but plenty of financial ads (26% on HuffPo and 17% on Yahoo).

Yahoo News, along with and, were the only sites that stood out for having a high level of targeted ads. On Yahoo, two-thirds of the ads were tailored to users’ recent browsing habits, compared to 47% on and 45% on Sites with moderate levels of targeting included, and

Rosenstiel suggested that some sites may be holding back from targeting ads because of privacy concerns. “There may be concerns about antagonizing audiences that news companies are more sensitive about than some technology companies, since user loyalty is such a major issue in news,” he said.

Along with the most targeted ads, Yahoo News also had the most ads from daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial among national sites, at 15%. Among regional sites, The Toledo Blade site had the most ads for discount programs (17%). 

Static banners made up the bulk (46%) of advertising on news sites, followed by sponsored text links (38%), and rich media (14.3%). The study noted that when a news organization uses Google to power its sponsored links box, it's using the Google service and sharing revenue with the search giant. “Thus, even without search ads, Google's presence can be strong,” it stated.

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