November 30, 2009

The Web Ad Wars Continue: Will the Real Darth Vader, Please Stand Up?

Greetings. In our previous two installments of what I had originally intended to be a one-shot blog posting (How to Sink a Major Web Site with a Single Ad, and The Hard-Core Web Ad Haters Strike Back!) we explored my annoyance with "auto-play" audio ads and the responses I received from readers who hate all Web advertising.

Subsequently my inbox has been filling with comments covering a broader range of views on this subject, and I felt it appropriate to devote one more posting to the topic right now to illuminate some of those opinions.

As noted in my original entries, there appears to be universal disgust for ads that start playing audio as soon as you navigate to a page -- especially when audio material isn't expected on those pages. This is the type of Web ad that I despise the most, though as I've said I don't use ad blockers as a matter of principle.

But lots of folks do use ad blockers, and they weren't shy about telling me why.

Most commonly cited were blocking tools that targeted flash-based ads. While some persons simply were annoyed by all of the visual activity that such ads often represent -- even if silent until un-muted -- other correspondents had more technical complaints that are especially difficult to ignore.

I received a large number of notes complaining about ad problems for users on relatively slow Internet connections, and how loading of "heavy" ads (flash, significant amounts of JavaScript or other "rich" content, etc.) dragged down to a crawl everything that these users were doing.

This brings up another pertinent point. How often have you had a Web page freeze up completely during loading, and when you looked down at the activity bar you could see that everything was hanging waiting for a third-party ad server like to connect? Slow or badly configured ad servers just rub salt into the wound for people who aren't kindly disposed toward Web ads in the first place.

Coincidentally, Google's Steve Souders commented on exactly this issue during a newly published interview -- definitely worth reading.

Some users are less interested in the content of ads per se when it comes to blocking, and are mainly blocking due to perceived privacy-related tracking concerns. There were also a number of folks who noted the increasingly seen phenomenon of pages that refuse to load if common ad blocking mechanisms are active (of course there are ways around this, in a continuing ad-related "arms race").

There were also actually a few people who professed -- apparently in light of my arguments -- to feeling a bit guilty about their broad use of ad blockers, and who pledged to at least experiment with not blocking ads on those sites that they felt were deserving of support.

But overall the sense I get from all of this is something just short of bedlam.

There is no Dark Lord pulling the strings of the situation. Given the wide spectrum of opinions pervading all aspects of Web ad controversies, it's likely to be impossible to attain any general agreement about who are really the bad guys -- or the good guys -- in the Web advertising universe. More likely it's usually going to be a complex shade of gray.

I want the largely ad-supported Web to survive. I don't want the Internet to become the 21st century equivalent of New York's old Automat -- and having to "insert coins" in profuse numbers to access conventional Web sites.

Yet a range of factors suggest that we're on the cusp of big, perhaps radical changes. The EU is embracing broad restrictions on Web site cookies that may have collateral effects way beyond the privacy issues that are purportedly its focus. Here in the U.S., Congress seems poised to possibly pass legislation that would put major new limitations on Web site tracking.

And of course we have Web users who routinely block some or all Web ads.

Imagine the ramifications (and the boost to that ads blocking arms race) if one or more major Web browsers came pre-configured to block most existing Web ads.

We end up pretty close to where we started. I am not convinced that sufficient thought and analysis have been given to either short or long-term funding models for the vast majority of Web sites if the current ad-based paradigm becomes untenable for any of a number of reasons.

If individuals (via ad blocking) and/or legislators (via laws) sufficiently "devalue" the ad-based Web model and that model cannot adapt sufficiently, then we either need to resign ourselves to a fee-based model (like Murdoch's pay-through-the-nose concept, which I don't believe is practical nor desirable), or some other funding mechanism entirely.

But if none of these alternatives turns out to be workable and acceptable, the most likely outcome is a major contraction in the number of Web sites available to the Internet-using public at large.

That, I believe, would not only be a waste, but could potentially be quite dangerous as well -- especially if key sources of Web-based information are unable to survive in the resulting funding vacuum.

We really need to be getting ahead of the game on this one, gang. Or else we risk having a large percentage of the Web -- including perhaps many of its most useful sites -- being abandoned to figuratively swing uselessly in the wind.


Posted by Lauren at November 30, 2009 06:32 PM | Permalink
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