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MSNBC Digital Network only shows online ads when users can see them

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The MSNBC Digital Network this week rolled out a new ad rendering system called ServeView. The service, which is available across all the network's story pages, places ads on the page when and where consumers will see them. Advertisers are assured that every ad impression they purchase has, in fact, been seen by users. Digital Directions spoke with Colin Hicks, editorial concepts engineer for MSNBC Digital Network and architect of ServeView, about the technology behind the system.

Digital Directions: What is the technology supporting ServeView?

Hicks: One of the technical goals we kept in mind in developing the system is to allow the experiences we create to have a deep “understanding” of the content within them. If you take a story about, say, vacationing in Croatia, where the editors included video, photos and text, when that story gets to your browser, the page itself knows that it has a video and text. In the same way, the page knows what ads are assigned to it and the locations for the ads. But the ads don't render immediately. This is what's visually different compared to what you see on other sites. We use JavaScript to delay the rendering of each ad until its assigned location is within the browser's viewable area. Every time you scroll the page, we repeat this scan for ad locations in view. And each time that happens, we make an individual call to the ad provider, to download and render the ad within its assigned location on the page.

DD: Is the techonology open-source or is it proprietary?

Hicks: In one scale, yes, we use open-source software. The platform is based in part on Microsoft's ASP.NET MVC. In the browser, we use another open-source technology, called jQuery, which is a JavaScript framework. Where it's proprietary is the integration. Because what we're doing here demands that we start at the platform level, which is particular to our work flow(s) and the experiences we want to create, it's difficult to generalize the software. It would be hard to port ServeView onto another platform.

DD: What challenge does the technology address in terms of demonstrating better ROI for advertisers?

Hicks: Without a mechanism to integrate [ServeView] with our publishing system itself, there's no way to assure the kind of behavior that the technology allows us to guarantee. Ads are technically limited in the browser, too, by the browser security model. An ad in an iframe, which is an HTML element, can't communicate with the rest of the page. So it can't be intelligent about whether [the ad] is in view or not. By using some supporting JavaScript and the data that come from deep integration, we can qualify the context of each ad.

DD: How does the technology help to fuel click-through rates?

Hicks: You have click-through rates versus ads served. We're clarifying that lower number and, by serving ads only when they can actually be seen by users, I think we're allowing our advertising partners to calculate ROI more effectively.

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