Brian Kelly of UKOLN looks at the issues associated with advertising on public sector Web sites.
Is advertising acceptable on public sector Web sites, which surely have a remit to be neutral? Or should the community welcome the opportunity to gain additional revenue through Web-based advertising? Similar questions have recently been faced within the UK Higher and Further education communities and Brian Kelly, a Web adviser to this sector, has been involved in work in this area  and gives his thoughts.
We all know what we mean by Web advertising, don’t we? Doesn’t this simply refer to the banner ads we see on many commercial Web sites?
It does, but advertising can also include much more. For example if we have a sponsorship arrangement with a company, we may wish to acknowledge this on our Web site. We may also wish to use a Web-based service (such as a voting form) on our Web site and would prefer to use the free version, funded through adverts, rather than pay for a licensed version.
Should affiliate links to, say, Amazon be classed as advertising? A user at a Library Web site who has borrowed a book or CD from the library and wishes to buy it could well find that an affiliate link directly to a purchase option at Amazon would be a useful service (as Essex Library provides ). But isn’t this simply a more subtle form of advertising than the banner ad, which still favours a single company?
It could be argued that community information services would benefit from providing interactive, and possibly personalised, interfaces, rather than the conventional static list of links. And if the local authority gains extra revenue from the service, than surely everyone is a winner.
We would also expect the Council to advertise its own services. And who could possibly object to the Council Web site wearing a Red Nose for Comic Relief?
Central Government appears to be in favour of Web advertising, as can be seen from a report on Electronic Government Services For the 21St Century: “Advertising will increasingly become a potential source of revenue on high use government sites. For example, the old government portal www.open.gov.uk received 14 million hits per week …. In the private sector this could generate advertising income of around £17 million p.a.” .
The same report states that “Public sector site owners are free to advertise, providing that certain conditions are met on the probity of material and the consistency with wider policy objectives. Site owners should ensure that advertisers' branding does not detract from the effectiveness of their own or wider government branding and the site should avoid any implication of endorsement of products or services.”
From this report it would appear that the Government is in favour of advertising on central Government Web sites. The report does, however, mention possible dangers of hosting adverts which will need to be addressed.
Those who object to advertising typically will have either philosophical or pragmatic objections. The philosophical objections (e.g. “public services should be seen to be neutral”) are essentially a political concern, and it would seem likely that decisions made at a local level will reflect the local political culture).
The pragmatic objections need to be openly discussed, as technological developments could render such objections obsolete. Pragmatic concerns which have been raised include the performance degradation caused by large embedded banner ads, the use of screen real estate by banner ads, the loss of local branding due to conflicts with the appearance of banner ads, concerns that the content of ads may conflict with local policies, etc.
The Government’s report states that “Site owners should ensure that advertisers' branding does not detract from the effectiveness of their own or wider government branding and the site should avoid any implication of endorsement of products or services” .
It is clear that public sector organisations will need to develop Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) which will define appropriate constraints and procedures. It would clearly be inappropriate, for example, for a health-related Web service to carry advertising for a tobacco company.
An AUP may also have to be complemented by a description of local procedures. For example, who within the organisation is responsible for dealing with requests for advertising, where does the income go to, who, if anyone, is responsible for monitoring compliance with the AUP, etc.
If you do decide to host adverts on your Web site, how should you go about implementing this decision?
There are many Web advertising companies who would be happy for you to host their banner ads. Such companies can easily be found by a Web search or by browsing a Web directory such as Yahoo  or Google . However before simply registering with a banner exchange company, it may be worth exploring the options provided by Web advertising companies which specialise in the public sector community.
Advertising on public sector Web sites would appear to be in keeping with the New Labour times we live in. An outright ban would probably be difficult to enforce, especially as, as we have seen, advertising may be difficult to define and can provide useful services for the user community.
However there is a need for an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) which should govern acceptable content (is tobacco advertising acceptable?) and local procedures (where does the income go, who should police the policy, etc.).
Perhaps this would be an interesting topic for next year’s SPIN Conference?
1 Beyond Design: Advertising on Your Web Site, Presentation at ILI 2001 conference, <http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/events/conferences/ili-2001/advertising/>
2 Essex Libraries, <http://www.essexcc.gov.uk/infoserv/ecc_lib/whatsin/music.htm>
3 Electronic Government Services For the 21St Century, Section 7.21, <http://www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/innovation/2000/delivery/intro.htm>
4 Home > Computers and Internet > Internet > Business and Economics, Yahoo, <http://uk.dir.yahoo.com/Computers_and_Internet/Internet/Business_and_Economics/Advertising_on_Web_and_Internet/>
5 Computers > Internet > Web Design and Development > Promotion, Google, <http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Internet/Web_Design_and_Development/Promotion/>
Brian Kelly in his role as UK Web Focus advises the UK Higher and Further Education communities on Web developments. Brian is based at UKOLN (UK Office for Library and Information Networking), University of Bath. Brian has recently been involved in a study on Advertising on JANET.