A Compromise in the Ad Wars

Begun, the Ad Wars have.

Long have web users been frustrated with advertisements on the web. They’re intrusive, both on the screen and in your data; annoying; obnoxiously loud; and frequently don’t offer anything we’re interested in. (And when they do, we find the tracking pretty damn creepy.) The annoyance has gone so far that Apple has baked in ad-blocking into the new version of Safari for iOS, which has sent everyone in the advertising and web content businesses into a panic. For instance:


The article linked in the tweet is a good one by Nilay Patel of The Verge, where he explains why ads are important to web producers (as well as how this is really just another salvo in the endless Apple vs. Google match.) There’s also this article in Advertising Age which displays a stunning amount of ignorance from advertisers, though I suppose it isn’t that stunning when this is literally how they put food on the table.

In short, we need to keep the ads there in order to fund the content we want to read. As Patel puts it (emphasis in original):

Those huge chunks — the ads! — are almost certainly the part you don’t want. What you want is the content, hot sticky content, snaking its way around your body and mainlining itself directly into your brain. Plug that RSS firehose straight into your optic nerve and surf surf surf ’til you die.

Unfortunately, the ads pay for all that content, an uneasy compromise between the real cost of media production and the prices consumers are willing to pay that has existed since the first human scratched the first antelope on a wall somewhere. Media has always compromised user experience for advertising: that’s why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long. Media companies put advertising in the path of your attention, and those interruptions are a valuable product. Your attention is a valuable product.

For better or worse, he’s right. The ads pay, and not well, but they pay enough to keep a lot of publishers in business giving you great content. The problem, though, is that many of these ads are horribly invasive. You first have the ads that completely block the screen and won’t let you continue for ten seconds. Now that doesn’t seem like a long time, but it is when you’re just trying to browse a news story; why wait ten seconds? Just close the tab and go elsewhere. Then there autoplaying video ads, which not only intrude into your music if you’re on Spotify or listening to VLC Player, but can also bother other people; imagine you just got your kid to sleep, you’re looking at something on the laptop, and a video ad plays and wakes the baby up. Or you’re at work, and once just starts playing in the office, going up and down the hall while people are on phone calls or working. It doesn’t even have to be offensive or vulgar; the very act of intruding into the environment beyond your screen is already offensive. Those ads work on TV because that’s the whole point of TV and we’re expecting it; the same expectations do not hold up to the web. And then there are those ads that aren’t there at first, which then appear, expand, and totally move everything around on screen. You know what I’m talking about, whether they’re the expanding banners above the navigation menu or videos that open up in the middle of the story itself. What if you’re going to click on a link, the video moves it all around and you end up clicking something completely different. That’s just frustrating, and the last thing anyone should be doing is making a dirt simple task like browsing the web frustrating. It defeats the entire purpose.

Naturally, this is before we get the part about data tracking and taking up more bandwidth from people’s accounts. Especially for those with slow and not terribly great Internet connections, that’s just downright rude.

I think that’s the really bad part of ads. We’re not terribly concerned (I think; I could be wrong) about simple silent visual ads on the side, or even one at the top that loads in with everything else and doesn’t move around DOM elements as you’re reading. All of us who’ve used the Internet over the past 10 years have dealt with those, and haven’t minded them at all. So in the spirit of goodwill and making the Internet a better place, I propose a compromise.

  1. Advertising will be permitted on websites, EXCEPT FOR THE FOLLOWING:
  2. Any ad that overlays the website and blocks viewing of the content for any length of time
  3. Any ad that plays audio and video without being selected to do so by the conscious effort of the user
  4. Any ad that manipulates the Document Object Model (aka the page or the DOM) to move elements after the page has loaded

Naturally, advertisers and publishers will likely scream bloody murder, as these do a wonderful job capturing our attention — our negative attention — and getting our eyeballs. Taking them away will probably result in a drop in revenue, and will likely result in the industry undergoing a bit of a shift. We’ll be cutting out a lot of advertising for this. Patel notes this at the end of his piece:

And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.

[…]

But taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. Innovation tends to follow the money, after all! And asking most small- to medium-sized sites to weather that change without dramatic consequences is utterly foolish. Just look at the number of small sites that have shut down this year: GigaOm. The Dissolve. Casey Johnston wrote a great piece for The Awl about ad blockers, in which The Awl’s publisher noted that “seventy-five to eighty-five percent” of the site’s ads could be blocked. What happens to a small company when you take away 75 to 85 percent of its revenue opportunities in the name of user experience? Who’s going to make all that content we love so much, and what will it look like if it only makes money on proprietary platforms?

There are numerous problems with Patel’s analysis. The first is the implicit notion that small sites are entitled to be alive, entitled to getting ad money out of you, and entitled to your eyeballs. This is most certainly not the case. Yes, it’s true that with a lesser amount of ads, many sites might go under. But my response to that is:

So what?

Most of the stuff on the Internet is pure dreck. Lots of sites regurgitate other websites’ stories without adding any actual value or new information; others just churn out nonsense articles that make you ask yourself if you wasted the five minutes reading them. For an example of the latter, check out this “story” from a site called “Neurogadget” on the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. There is literally no substance to the story; it’s 310 ten words basically say, “The first Surface wasn’t great, the second was a little better, the third was really awesome, and the fourth is probably going to be really super awesome.” That’s it; no specs, no data, just a lot of empty fluff.

For an example of the former, take any story from Mediaite (perhaps not fair, as they do cover the media), HuffPo, or any other big or even medium sized website. I’ve seen them, the stories that quote liberally from another story, and basically add nothing more than another way to rephrase the story, and maybe a few links (as this story by HuffPo, which is far from the worst, does.)

This is not content. This is not information. It’s just noise. I would say that about 80% of the stuff on the internet is just junk, and it deserves to go away permanently. Tell me, what did GigaOm provide that sites like CNET and PCMag did not? We don’t need this noise, and frankly, nobody ultimately cares. It will not be a huge loss to humanity, we will simply move on. (Plus, there is a legitimate question over whether The Awl is short for The Awful.)

Another problem is that GigaOm and The Dissolve went out before the ad blocking controversy began. That means that the current ad environment could not save them anyways, so that part is pretty much moot. Whether or not Apple comes up baked in ad blocking is utterly irrelevant, as they failed anyways. So that tells me that ad blocking, at least the institutionalized form everyone is arguing over now, doesn’t really matter.

But then finally, the last nail in the coffin is that for years, we’ve had great content provided sans ads, and you know what? We still get great content today. The best websites are those that don’t have ads, or a minimal amount. Orion’s Arm is one of my favorite websites, and it doesn’t have ads. Neither does my friend’s blog. Reddit keeps a close handle on ads, and doesn’t let them pop up. Wait But Why does have pop-ups, but they’re easily dismissable, and none of the play any noise.

The best content is usually unpaid, for the precise reason that it isn’t rushed to make some deadline, isn’t done to just be clickbait and get ad money, and instead has passion and thoughtfulness infusing it. If you’re writing something without being paid or compensated by ads, you’re doing it because you really have something to say, something you care about. That makes these things far better, and makes the ad-supported content look kinda terrible in comparison.

So I won’t weep for a loss of these sites. It’ll be the market and consumer demand weeding them out, and that’s a good thing. The clickbait headlines and stories rushed out immediately in order to get advertising clicks have, probably, made our society much dumber. We no longer take the time to think, we must spew something forth immediately, damn the truth! So maybe blocking these kinds of ads will also lead us to slow down, think, actually make decisions and not just blindly throw something, anything, on a page to get those ad clicks.

On the other hand, viewers will probably hate me because there are two things I didn’t block in the compromise: tracking and bandwidth. The latter because every web developer should be minimizing bandwidth usage by default; it’s been a terrible, hateful trend lately to absorb as much bandwidth as possible with cool animations and whatnot, but developers should be designing the most efficient sites possible. As for tracking…well, I’m convinced that by and large, privacy as we know it is dead. The next generation will know nothing of it, and in the long run it’s a lost cause. Big data is here and it will stay. Sure, you can use extensions to block that stuff if you want, but there will always be data flowing around. I don’t consider it something stoppable.

But terrible ads can be stopped. And so can these stupid ad wars, which just illustrate that a huge sector of the web provider industry knows next to nothing about its users.