The Washington Post wants to make the web faster. In September, the publisher started testing a proprietary tech product called Zeus that speeds up load time and cuts down data-heavy ads on mobile. Buoyed by initial successful results, Zeus is now powering all of the Post’s desktop, mobile and app advertising, claiming that each ad served will load in two seconds or less.
Zeus is part of the 10-person Research, Experimentation and Development (or RED) group that builds ad-tech for the publisher as it addresses industry problems like viewability, fraud and latency using internal resources as opposed to working with tech vendors. With more consumers looking for quick news and growing ad-blocking rates (just last week the Wall Street Journal reported that Google is considering building an ad-blocking feature into its Chrome browser), speed is increasingly becoming a bigger priority for digital publishers in keeping users within their own sites. Over the past year, the Post has worked to decrease the load times for content and articles while Zeus addresses bulky ad formats like video.
“The web is slow, there’s a lot of latency that comes to how things load across desktop and mobile and no one wants to seem to fix it,” said Jarrod Dicker, head of ad product and technology at The Washington Post. “The biggest complaint all along has been advertising—internally, a lot of newsrooms will blame the advertising part of the business and say, ‘Ads are slow, java script is slow’ and so forth.”
The Post’s technology identifies ads that are too heavy to load and instead serves a promo that doesn’t gobble up data from a consumer’s phone plan. Zeus can also detect how fast someone is scrolling so that ads only load when they’re about to come into view. If someone is scrolling too fast, Zeus pulls back from serving an ad. “We’re only delivering these things based on how the user is experiencing our site,” Dicker explained.
According to Dicker, Zeus is rendering some ads in less than one second and tests have increased viewability 100 percent compared to the industry average, meaning that every ad loads in under two seconds, per media watchdog Media Rating Council’s definition. On mobile, the Post reports a 40 percent increase in viewability from using Zeus. Meanwhile click-through rates for Zeus-enabled ads increased 32 percent, per the Post.
“We’re seeing for much of our mobile app upwards of 40 percent increase, even some in the 90th percentile for ads loading,” Dicker said. For comparison, Integral Ad Science recently reported that 58.2 percent of ads were deemed viewable in 2016.
The Post also participates in Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (or AMP) programs, which promise to help publishers and advertisers create content that loads quickly on mobile devices. Dicker said Facebook and Google influenced Zeus, but, “this is even broader and something that goes around Google Doubleclick [and] the actual delivery system—we loved what Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP were doing in terms of the ethics around ads [and] getting partners to create ads that have user experience in mind.”
That said, Zeus focuses on working with creative that advertisers have already built, which often include big files that hog data and slow down websites. “It’s easy for a Facebook or a Google to go back to an advertiser and tell them to change their creative for AMP or Instant—it’s hard for us to go to a client and say you should change it for us as well when we know they’re buying across programmatic channels and other publishers,” Dicker said.
As part of the Post’s licensing arm of business, the publisher is also pitching Zeus to other publishers like Tronc and Toronto’s The Globe and Mail that can pay to use Zeus on their own websites.
“There’s been such an obvious need for a company with power like a large publisher to infiltrate and fix this space,” said Dicker. “We’ve been focusing on that in a very intelligent way with RED and we’re building technologies that aren’t dependent on The Washington Post.”