State selling Net ads

DAT is seeking to defray the costs of its Web site

3 customers so far

$200-$350 a month to get message before the public

February 24, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, with one of the state's busiest Web sites, is selling banner ads to defray the cost of maintaining the site.

The department joins at least one other Maryland state Web site and a small number of other states and municipalities across the country that sell ads or sponsorships to offset technology costs.

The site owes its popularity mainly to a free, searchable database that anyone can use to research 2 million real property accounts within the state's borders. Its commercial users include real estate firms, lenders, appraisers and other real estate-related companies, according to Ronald W. Wineholt, director of assessments and taxation.

All but a handful of states and municipalities nationwide have shied away from selling online advertisements. Many states don't regard the potential advertising revenue as sufficient to make the effort worthwhile, while others are not yet ready - or willing - to tackle the legal and ethical implications.

Companies that choose to advertise on the site - and three already have - reach a big audience. Wineholt said the Web site's pages are viewed 4 million times a month. While the state doesn't yet keep a definitive tally on its Web site traffic, the DAT site tops the state lottery site (1.5 million page views per month) and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation site (525,000 views per month).

"Everybody wants a free Web site that's available 24 hours a day, but it costs over $100,000 a year to run it," said Wineholt. Advertising sales "will help. ... In effect, it's allowing the Web site to pay for itself."

The DAT Web site was once hosted by International Business Machines Corp., but the department switched to Towson University's RESI, an economic and technology consultancy, in late 1999. Traffic on the Web site, which also offers information on Maryland companies, has doubled in the past two years, Wineholt said.

To place an ad on the Web site, advertisers e-mail or call RESI expressing their interest and provide the written material, which RESI forwards to the agency to accept or reject. RESI has paid student interns working on the site, who also receive course credit. Most of the revenue will go to reducing the Web site costs, but a smaller amount is kept by RESI to offset the costs of running the student intern program, officials said.

"There is a risk in taking advertising," Wineholt said. "It could be time-consuming and could deal with controversy on what is, or is not, appropriate. But there's also a risk in doing nothing, in forgoing revenue for the state to help reduce our cost."

Other states have tried selling online ads with no success, while others are just starting to consider it. And some states, such as Indiana and Florida, allow third-party companies that are contracted to operate complex Web pages to sell ads on the site as a way to cover costs.

There isn't a statewide policy on ad sales on Maryland's Web sites, although there has been some discussion, said Linda D. Burek, the state's chief information officer.

So far, three companies have bought banner ads on assessments and taxation's Web site. Depending on where it's situated, Wineholt said, an ad ranges from $200 to $350 for a month - a bargain for a site that reaches such a large commercial audience, advertising executives said.

David A. Kopel, owner of Legal Papers Inc., a company that locates and serves people with legal documents, said he's advertising on the Web site because he knows that it's used by many attorneys.

"Nobody else can be on the same Web page as we can - that's what made it nice," Kopel said.

The ad has been up since Jan. 29 and has yet to generate business for Kopel's firm. He expects to try it for six months, and analyze the ad's effectiveness after the first three months.

Still, the idea of selling ads on a government Web site is fraught with implications - from First Amendment issues to privacy concerns over information-gathering, experts said. Wineholt said the site collects "very generic" information about users: such as the domain type that a visitor comes from - a ".com," ".gov," or ".edu." The site also has a privacy policy linked to the home page at www.dat.state.

"We really don't have a level of detail to know specifically who is using our Web site," Wineholt said.

Before the agency began accepting ads, an assistant attorney general within the Department of Assessments and Taxation drafted a two-page Web site advertising policy that ad buyers must follow. (Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, which sells Web page "sponsorships" for $1,000 a year to defray costs, also crafted its own policy.)

Lee Plave, a partner with Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe in Washington, said the selling of ads by a government Web site raises several questions, including who is allowed to advertise and who is excluded.

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