While many businesses these days want to improve their online visibility, many don't know how to approach it other than to build a website and maybe do some search engine marketing.

Yet 14 years after the launch of the first self-serve advertising platform, GoTo.com, I'm still surprised how little many businesses still know about do-it-yourself online advertising opportunities available to them.

After all: Even though Google's DIY pay-per-click search, contextual and display ad networks create an 800-pound gorilla, and yet there are plenty of other places to try self-serve online advertising.

Why, you might ask, as an owner of a digital ad agency, would I want to tell you about self-serve advertising platforms? There are several reasons:

  1. Many businesses do not have the budget for the kind of large-scale advertising campaigns we plan and manage. That doesn't that mean they shouldn't have a shot at doing online advertising, however; some self-serve platforms have minimum buy-ins as low as $10!
  2. An  increase in total advertisers is good for my industry. The growing shift away from traditional, offline ad buys only helps to support improvements for digital ad technologies and for the publishers who post and monetize their content.
  3. Though I'm sharing this information with you, it doesn't come without a few warnings–and I want you to hear those too.

Dos & Don'ts of Self-Serve Ad Platforms

Photo courtesy of Flickr/LensFodder

Do know that many self-serve ad platforms are networks, which means your ads will be shown across a spectrum of websites and on different placements on any given website page.  Many of these ad networks don't offer you a lot of control, transparency, or detailed reporting. You'll also have to trust the network that your ads did in fact appear somewhere in cyberspace.

Do understand the types of advertising and ad format you'll be buying, because you may need to produce ad creative to meet certain specifications.

Do understand how the payment and cost structures work. (Don't just "set it and forget it," particularly if you've entered your credit card as a payment method–you might have a rude awakening if you didn't set any limits to your ad budget.)

Do experiment. Start out with small budgets. Test different ad messages, and try sending users to different landing pages to compare impact.

Don't forget to develop compelling offers and present calls to action–such as "Click here," "complete this form," or "Buy now!"–to get users to do what you want them to do.

Don't go in with unrealistic expectations. Many of your early efforts will not yield fruit until you have a better understanding of what you're doing and have tested to find out what will work.

Where to Buy DIY Ads

As I mentioned already, there are alternatives to Google. Below is just a smattering of options. I've broken them down by category for you, to make things a little easier to digest.

Banner (Display) Ad Networks

Contextually Targeted Text & Display Ads

Networks Offering Multiple Ad Types

Social Media Ads

Mobile Ads

Video Ads

B2B-Focused Ads

If despite–or, perhaps, because of–this extensive list, you still feel uncomfortable entrusting your ad budget to technology platforms that will happily spend your dollars, don't feel you have to go at this on your own.

But whether you hire professionals or take the DIY route, always remember that if something looks too good to be true ... It probably is.