Is Advertising Breaking the Internet?

BY Roxanne Minott



Online advertising is often criticized for failing to serve the needs of consumers. Articles, videos, banners and other ad content are designed to advance the objectives of the corporations that finance them, without any respect for user experience.

Users have started to abandon videos due to pre-roll ads that are excessively long and uninteresting. Visitors attempt to turn off autoplaying video ads on one of several open desktop browser tabs. At times, large ads drop down from the top of the screen, and content desired by readers is pushed far down.

Programmatic ads, which are automatically placed by Google and others, are particularly junky and repetitive. However, publishers have little control over them.

There are sites on which native ads, in which articles or videos written by advertisers are mixed with standard content, are too difficult to distinguish from editorial content. And the “around the web” features at the conclusion of articles frequently use much lower standards than the site itself.

A broken ad supported online model

The view that the ad supported online model is broken is shared by Evan Williams, CEO of the journalism site Medium. He condemned the ad-driven model, laid off the company’s traditional ad sales team and promised to find a better alternative. He said that ad-driven media on the internet does not serve people, and is not intended to do so. Instead, the media serves the companies that fund it. And they are evaluated on the basis of their ability to do just that.

Williams indicated there would be a new business for Medium, but did not reveal what it would be. It is believed that the company is considering a subscription system that would consist of individual blogs appearing on Medium’s platform, or groups of blogs. That is the usual alternative or complement to ads. However, it has its own issues.

Ad blockers and subscriptions

Ad blocking software, which can cause legitimate content sites to lose revenue, is becoming more popular among internet users. Some blockers allow certain ads through, thus functioning as gatekeepers and generating income for the ad blocking providers while preventing websites from earning revenue. Subscriptions have been effective for certain publications, like The New York Times. The Times describes itself as a subscription-first business. Its focus on subscribers differentiates it from many other media organizations, which attempt to maximize clicks and sell low-margin advertising.

However, depending on how stringent they are, subscriptions can make it difficult to share articles and retain a site’s content in the conversation. For instance, in trying to share a Times article with someone, that person may be unable to read it if they are not a subscriber. Some subscribers have also found that certain publications, such as The Times and The Boston Globe, forget who their subscribers are, and attempt to deny them access. And the majority of subscription sites still contain ads.

One resolution is for publishers and platforms to impose rigorous advertising standards policies similar to those that print newspapers did many years ago. Such policies may prompt ad agencies to be less intrusive in the placement of their ads.

Ad blockers to combat poor advertising

Ad blocking software has become increasingly prevalent in response to the plethora of poor online advertising. Many internet users have welcomed the advent of ad blockers, which prevent the appearance of pop-ups, and stop promos from playing before videos. Blockers also alleviate qualms about inadvertent clicking on a virus.

Poorly designed ads invade our privacy and clutter websites and apps, particularly on mobile devices and in the Facebook News Feed, where content is consumed with no requirement that the reader or viewer visit the originating site.

Owners of sites that rely on ads are concerned that ad blockers will reduce their revenue. This is quickly becoming one of the most important disputes with respect to the internet. A rising number of nations are implementing measures in an effort to decrease ad blocking. For instance, the EU’s European Commission went so far as to recommend a regulation that would permit media companies to ban consumers who use ad blockers.

According to PageFair, a leading company that handles advertising recovery, as of 2015, 500 million devices throughout the world had an ad blocking plugin or used a browser that automatically blocked ads. As a result, websites and online services that depend on advertisements for their principal source of revenue, suffered billions of dollars of losses.

How do anti-ad-blockers work?

Initially, companies run analytics to enable websites to comprehend the amount of revenue that is being lost to ad-blockers. Secondly, companies provide their customers with tools that can request that users accept advertisements, give online users an option regarding which ads are to be removed, or permit website users to have an ad-free experience provided they pay a fee. This will depend on which anti-ad-blocking service is used.

Evading ad blockers has the potential to prove lucrative, particularly for struggling industries like free training sites and gaming sites. Dan Rua, CEO of Admiral, which designs software to reduce the effect of ad blockers, says that providing users with options and explaining the necessity for ads prevents consumers from feeling as though they have been caught unaware. Rua states that in order to view the entire problem, you must look at ways in which the internet is impacted by ad blockers.

The issue is whether the internet can remain free for all to use. He goes on to say that nine out of 10 sites that people visit are free, and that is due to advertisements. Ad blocking poses a threat to the continuity of the internet, says Matthew Courtland, spokesman for PageFair. He says that if publishers are not earning revenue from the internet, then the quality of the content on the internet will gradually deteriorate.

However, companies that engage in ad blocking claim they are safeguarding the spirit of the open web by allowing users to retain control. Adblock Plus spokesman Ben Williams says that when companies compel consumers to view ads, they are suspending the spirit of the free internet.

PageFair claims that some users are unaware that ad blockers are already installed on their devices. Browsers, such as UC Browser, which is widely used in China, is purchased with ad-blocking software installed. And others install ad-blocking software immediately in order to safeguard their devices from malware.

Essentially, ad-blocking has become the new firewall or anti-virus. According to Ben Williams, partial ad-blocking, which is AdblockPlus’ principal model, is a more plausible way for companies to recover revenue without usurping power from internet users. He believes there are better ways to help publishers recoup lost revenue, saying, “You can work with blocking companies” to display ads that users have approved. Working directly with consumers in this way is a more feasible means of resolving the issue of online advertising.

How ad tech is harming the web

There was a time when individuals who visited the same web page simultaneously using the same web browser would view the same thing. Currently, however, scripts, cookies, auctions use personal information to show brand messages and sales pitches designed especially for the user. This raises privacy issues. For instance, almost immediately after you view a website online, ads for that site begin to follow you on each website you visit subsequently. Such an invasion of privacy can persist for weeks.

In this way, your bandwidth is being used to display content you neither requested nor desired. As a result, your user experience is corrupted. In response to privacy concerns, Apple revealed a new iPhone operating system that facilitates content blocking. An additional benefit is that it offers better performance on iPhones, and for those who have installed the correct plugins.

Ads’ consumption of bandwidth is likely to increase unremittingly regardless of whether bandwidth itself increases sufficiently rapidly to meet that need. For example, several web publishers have begun to compel their viewers to sit through a video not only prior to watching video content, but even prior to reading a text story.

As mobile device use increases, it is likely that mobile ads will become more irritating over time. The shift to more privacy safeguards may aid in reducing the speed with which such technologies are adopted. But it is doubtful whether websites will show signs of improvement. If you wish to avoid having an unpleasant experience on the mobile web, you will have to begin reading your articles natively, in the Facebook or Apple News app.

The effect of advertising

A major problem plaguing the web is the fact that network effects have a tendency to build online monopolies. While ad-blocking reflects consumers’ increasing objection to an industry that has shown little regard for users’ needs and desires, the ad industry has become reliant on two of the most influential companies on the web, namely, Google and Facebook. It is estimated that their combined percentage of online ad budgets ranges from a little under 60 percent to 75 percent. However, a monopoly, albeit a shared one, is not good for price competition, transparency or innovation.

According to Joe McCambley, who helped create the banner ad in 1994, brands are successful on the web because they ask “How can I help you?” rather than “What can I sell you?” He says, “Most advertisers and their agencies do not know how to be helpful.” He writes that once the web grew sufficiently large to capture the attention of big advertisers, it marked the end of the web’s mission to provide beneficial or valuable information. Not long afterwards, the reach and frequency of large agencies were ruining content and utility.

However, it is arguable whether ads universally function well on the web. If they did, the ad blocker would not have been created. Nevertheless, with or without ads, all media is shifting to digital platforms, in which case, there will be no place for ads. And as digital takes over, it is unknown what will replace advertising.

Scott Cunningham, who previously worked for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), said that the key to much-needed change is convincing marketers to create ads that cooperate with the way digital media — and its users ­— functions. They must choose the sites on which a brand’s ads will appear, and know that it is more advantageous to focus on quality instead of quantity.

The role of Adblock Plus in finding a solution

Instead of removing all ads from the internet, Adblock Plus is trying to replace the negative ads, which it considers to be large, ugly or intrusive, with positive ads, which are smaller, subtler and much less irritating. It will accomplish this goal via an ad marketplace, which will permit blogs and other website operators to choose acceptable ads and put them on their pages. If a consumer uses Adblock Plus, and visits the page, they will see those acceptable ads rather than whatever ads the site would usually run.

While the program is intended to be nice to publishers by allowing them to show some ads instead of none, publishers are not entirely pleased. In all likelihood, acceptable ads are less profitable than the ads a publication could otherwise show, thereby restricting the site’s revenue.

Publishers keep 80 percent of all ad revenue, and the remaining 20 percent is divided among other parties involved in placing the ad. Adblock Plus receives six percent of all revenue. According to Ben Williams, operations and communications director of Adblock Plus, the Acceptable Ads program is designed to reverse 100 percent of ad blocking.

Adblock Plus plans to establish a committee of publishers, privacy advocates and advertisers in order to determine the future of its Acceptable Ad standards program. This program may well provide the medium that can offer some relief to internet users who are bombarded with annoying ads, and publishers who are largely dependent on advertising to generate revenue.

Roxanne Minott

Roxanne Minott is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and legal content writer for Custom Legal Marketing.


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