Banner Exchanges: Beware the Hype of the 1:1 Ratio

1998: If you’re a webmaster, one thing you want to do is have people visit your website. There are lots of ways to get people’s attention:

  1. being mentioned on another site (especially a popular one)
  2. links from other sites
  3. being indexed by the major search engines
  4. link swaps with other sites (you list mine, I’ll list yours)
  5. web rings and banner exchanges

The first is usually predicated on a good news release sent to sites you think will publish a link. The second usually means the webmaster of the other site has seen your site and thinks it merits a link. (Congratulations!)

The third means you’ve registered with the various search engines and someone is looking for what’s on your site. (Reality check: They may be looking for something completely different. Search engines aren’t all that bright sometimes.)

The fourth is one I’m not particularly fond of. I’d rather someone link to my sites because of what they offer. I know that’s why I put up links to other sites: I respect them and consider them worthwhile resources. Still, sometimes you get an offer to exchange links from a new site and make a great discovery.

Web Rings and Banner Exchanges

I’ve been using web rings and banner exchanges to promote Low End Mac since I first discovered them. I’ve also crunched the numbers and discovered that some banner exchanges are much better than others – and web rings lose their focus.

When I published Mac Webmasters (now part of MacKiDo), I undertook a lengthy comparison of banner exchanges used on Mac-related sites. The expected finding was that Mac-related banner exchanges provided a much higher click-through ratio (CTR) than general purpose banner exchanges.

But the biggest surprise was that the banner exchange with the 2:1 ratio (for every two banners I displayed, mine would be shown once) consistently had a higher CTR than the exchange with a 1:1 ratio – even when I took into account that I had to display two banners for mine to show once.

Of course, there were other differences. At the time, Mac Web Network had over 250 active members, while Macseek, the new banner exchange with a 1:1 ratio, had just over 40. This means that banners on Mac Web Network were being seen in a lot more places than those on Macseek.

And Mac Web was the established Mac-oriented banner exchange; Macseek was only three months old when I did my research.

I was displaying the same banners on each exchange, so I would expect more clicks per banner displayed on my site from Macseek with its 1:1 ratio. But it didn’t turn out that way.

In the intervening months, the Mac Web Network has moved to a new server and now targets ads, which seems to have raised CTR. Macseek was forced to move their banner exchange, which is now known as the MacPromote Xchange.

The 1:1 Ratio

It’s self-evident that a 1:1 ratio will get your banner displayed more times than a 2:1 ratio.

But there are qualifications.

First, there have to be enough spots on the banner exchange to display all the banners you’ve earned. Upon joining Macseek in December 1987, Low End Mac immediately dominated the exchange. After three days, I had 800 more credits than exposures. After a month, I had nearly 12,000 unused credits. At one point, it had grown past 60,000.

What’s going on here?

Quite simply, there weren’t enough other pages being served on the exchange to allow the use of these credits. Back in January, a typical day was 1,600 credits. But since my banners could only be displayed on other sites, 21% of my credits could not be used. They went into escrow.

The other problem with this is that my banners were the only ones being displayed on the other member sites, and Low End Mac was the only place displaying their banners.

Still, it brought in over 600 visitors that month.

The problem with a 1:1 ratio is illustrated with what happened here. If an exchange is displaying 500 banners per day for 10 different sites, unless any site has over 250 credits, everything works just fine.

But the minute a site joins that earns more credits in a day than all the other sites combined, things get out of balance. With a 1:1 ratio, there is absolutely nowhere to use deferred credits without taking them from another site.

Case in point: Since July the MacPromote Xchange has been trying to use up my Low End Mac credits. In July I used 4,000 credits. In August, 35,000. I’m still behind, but not by nearly as much.

But where did these exposures come from? Well, I started a new site in June, the iMac channel, which is also part of the MacPromote Xchange. It’s been even more popular than Low End Mac, so it is a great donor site to display Low End Mac’s banners. In July, it had a surplus of 500 credits. By the end of August, that had grown past 25,000.

All of my smaller sites on MacPromote are using their credits as they earn them, but these two sites seem to dominate the banner exchange. Worst of all, no matter what they do, they can’t use surplus credits without shorting another site. There’s nowhere to take them from.

Worse than 1:1

If you think that’s a problem, what about an exchange offering a 1:1 ratio – plus 1,000 free exposures? Again, there’s nowhere to get those 1,000 exposures from while providing a 1:1 ratio.

Still, I decided to give MacTraffic a try. Unlike Mac Web Network and MacPromote, they exchange 88 x 31-pixel buttons. It’s hard to design an attention-getting button, but worth a try for additional site exposure.

To date, I have five sites on MacTraffic. The three smaller sites have all had their 1,000 bonus exposures. The iMac channel is behind by about 700 of those 1,000. And Low End Mac is down over 13,000 – not counting the 1,000 exposure bonus.

Guess which site is providing the 1,000 free exposures to new members?

But this time I entered with my eyes open. I wrote the folks who run the exchange, and they are aware of the problems of a 1:1 ratio, which they are using as an introductory offer (although their materials didn’t mention that). They will be dropping to a lower ratio once they are established, which will give me a chance to use all my credits.

What Works?

Nice as it sounds, the button exchange has a truly pathetic CTR. The highest for any of my sites is 0.33% or one click per 300 buttons displayed.

My overall average on MacPromote is 0.60%, or one click per 167 banners displayed.

Using the exact same banners on the Mac Web Network, my CTR based on the display of my banners is 2.06%. Factoring in the fact that I have to display two banners to have mine shown once, this drops to 1.03% or one click for every 97 banners I display on my sites.

Why Does It Work?

I can only speculate why the banner exchange with the lower display ratio has a higher CTR, even factoring in that ratio. Here are some possible reasons:

  • Broader exposure to 250-300 active sites, compared with about 100 for MacPromote. (MacTraffic membership is unknown.)
  • Banners don’t dominate on a larger exchange, so viewers see a variety of banners on all sites, not primarily banners for the dominant sites on the smaller sites.
  • A faster server. Mac Web has a fast server and hosts the banners itself, while MacPromote and MacTraffic have slower servers (esp. MacTraffic) and rely on the speed of your site to serve the banner.
  • Better focus. Mac Web puts each site in a category to help target banners. They have improved this system over the past month and even track the CTR for each banner you display.


Simply put, you can’t run a 1:1 exchange with a bonus of 1,000 exposures and keep it that way. Nor can a 1:1 exchange survive the introduction of a site that generates more credits than it can possibly use in a day (must be under 50% of total credits).

Mac Web Network has demonstrated that a 2:1 ratio can produce higher CTR than a 1:1 ratio, which is the last thing you’d expect without analyzing everything. But you can’t argue with success.

Looking at my statistics in the many months on MacPromote, there were several times when Low End Mac was able to use only 72-80% of its credits. Although that’s now a thing of the past, the iMac channel is now below the 80% level.

If I were to create an exchange, I’d avoid the 1:1 ratio because of the problems a wildly successful site brings. You need to have a surplus, even a small one, so there’s some chance that these credits will be used.

Although 2:1 works for Mac Web and many other banner exchanges, I think a higher ratio could work better, at least once you have a broad base of members. And the higher ratio would be attractive in marketing the exchange.

My data shows a ratio as high a 5:4 should work provided no single site uses half the displays. This also means credits equal 80% of banners displayed on the user’s site, so they are earning good exposure.

A ratio in the 4:3 (75%) to 3:2 (67%) range would also provide more exposures with less danger of a single site dominating the exchange.

Not that I’m contemplating setting up an exchange, but I do love a good thought experiment.


If you’re a webmaster, promote your site in every way you can. (I made full-color business cards to drop off at my local Apple dealers.) Send out news releases, get listed on the search engines, and consider joining a link exchange.

If you have a Mac-related site, Mac Web Network, MacPromote Xchange, and MacTraffic are the first things you should consider, in that order. For general purpose sites, look into Link Exchange, Smart Clicks, and others.

Even a low CTR is better than none. If I were to put all three exchanges on a page that was served 10,000 times, I could expect almost 200 additional visitors to my site (106 of them through the Mac Web Network). Each of these would probably visit several pages. Several might bookmark Low End Mac for repeat views. A few will share the URL with friends.

A small 2% growth rate per month grows your site 27% in a year. Add to that the growth from other promotions, and you’re well on your way to increasing your site’s visibility.


Since posting this article, MacPromote Xchange has switched to a 2:1 ratio, Mac Web Network has stopped updating its site, and MacTraffic has disappeared completely.