January 18, 2007
While reading Larry O'Brien's latest column in SD Times, I couldn't help noticing that the article text was dwarfed by the advertisements.
I was curious exactly how much of the page was dedicated to advertising. There's a clever technique used in the book Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed to measure the composition of webpages.
The fifty corporate homepages used in the book didn't contain much advertising, but I was still amazed how little screen real estate is dedicated to actual content. Let's apply the same technique to the SD Times page. I'll highlight navigation, content, and advertising.
A full third of the page is dedicated to advertising. That's more than the content itself!
I carried a torch for micropayments for years, but it's never going to happen. Ad-supported content appears to be the only sustainible business model on the internet. Clay Shirky has been saying this for years. Just open a web browser and it's painfully obvious that he was right. The web is awash in advertising.
This model, which generates income by making content widely available over open networks without charging user fees, is usually called 'ad-supported content', and it is currently very much in disfavor on the Internet. I believe however, that not only can ad-supported content work on the Internet, I believe it can't not work. Its success is guaranteed by the net's very makeup - the net is simply too good at gathering communities of interest, too good at freely distributing content, and too lousy at keeping anything locked inside subscription networks, for it to fail. Like TV, the net is better at getting people to pay attention than anything else.
Indeed, ad-supported content is the house that AdWords built. It's difficult to criticize a system that works, a system that allows content creators to at least break even on their hosting costs.
We watched the movie Idiocracy this weekend. It's a brilliant bit of social satire from Mike Judge, which (among other things) takes ad-subsidized content to its logical extremes. People wear nothing but clothes plastered with corporate logos. Wallpaper and lampshades are made up of patterns of tiny corporate logos. Every square inch of every imaginable surface is covered with billboards and even more advertisements.
Watching television in Idiocracy bears an unfortunate resemblance to reading that SD Times article. To be fair, Larry's content is a bit more highbrow than "Ow! My Balls!". But it's still a tiny window of content, surrounded by dozens of flashing, animated advertisements. It's a disturbing vision of the future. It's supposed to be funny, but it's uncomfortably close to the experience of reading today's ad-supported internet content. Are we creating a world of endless advertising?
Posted by Jeff Atwood
the comparison to TV is wrong. TV is balkanizing, thanks to the FCC (but that's another episode). pay "channels" are providing content; the ad based "networks" are providing non-content. the (rant start) right wing politicians are seeing to it that balkanization happens (rant end) wherever possible. Joel Spolsky, who is not a trained economist but does know a thing or two about selling sofware, recently explained it awfully well for a civilian: given the opportunity, capitalists will use market segmentation to extract full price along the demand curve.
In addition to AdBlock, you can edit your HOSTS file to block text ads. This works on any web browser, and is quite effective against the pervasive Google ads (although it cannot block Flash).
An example -- http://everythingisnt.com/hosts.html
Sample HOSTS file -- http://everythingisnt.com/hosts
Thanks to this trick, I have not seen a single ad for a long time.
I think the basic problem is that economically speaking, most Internet content is worthless. I emphatically do *not* mean that in an elitist way, the tired old "blogs are worthless" garbage, because for one thing I also include all commercial content as well. What I mean is that almost all internet content is freely substitutable with other things. Sure, nobody else is Jeff Atwood, but there are so many people with strong voices and interesting things to say on any and every topic that even trying to charge a penny for complete access to your entire site and ignoring all other micropayment costs would be enough to do grave damage to your audience.
Text is too easy to produce. Anybody can become good at it; major portions of our brain are hard-wired to communication. (The real miracle is how many people *fail* to become good at it.) The going rate of a hunk of text on the Internet is ever-so-slightly negative; that is, the provider is subsidizing it.
How can anybody monetize something of slightly negative value? Given that there are pieces of text that aren't of slightly negative value, how are consumers going to be able to reliably detect these texts without reading them in advance? (By the time you factor the risk depreciation in to the value of a text, i.e., that I don't know whether what I'm paying for is any good so I'm not as willing to pay as much for it as I would be otherwise, you are again not left with much value.)
The only thing that's going to stop ad proliferation is the increasing worthlessness of ads as they continue to proliferate. They lose value, too. Already it's a rare site that can even recover the cost of hosting with ads, forget making money.
Fortunately, I don't really see a "problem" here; as text becomes increasingly easy to serve (bandwidth and processing costs go down), it'll continue to be viable for people to just pay their website hosting costs. Commercial interests become trickier, and my expectation is that it will be nearly impossible to run a site based on providing people text stories and make money. We're probably already there. You're going to have to offer something more.
In the face of alternatives, advertising is almost the noble option. Subscriptions are difficult and although I think they will become viable again when some market consolidation occurs there will obviously those authors who wish to access the widest possible audience. Affiliate partnerships affect the objectivity (both perceived and actual) of an author because incentives are now weighed towards the paying party. At least advertising networks can provide the perception of objectivity by separating the sale of ads from the author. I do think sites should attempt to provide higher value advertisements by trending away from the shotgun approach of a third of a page's content occupied by 10-20 different advertisements. A single high-impact advertisment free from the noise of competing advertisements must surely be more effective? Sites offering higher conversion rates for specific products should be able to command higher rates?
Well, there's ONE other model that works...
Donations. When a company takes their current size, current growth and estimates the cost of continuing for a set amount of time and then turns around and asks the content subscribers to help IF THEY CAN, without charging... it works a lot. I've seen several web comics go that route successfully. It's just a matter of having a devoted fan base that really wants your services and not cutting out the people that aren't paying for it.
It feels an awful lot like begging, but if you're providing a service for free, it's more akin to setting out the tip jar rather than the beggar's mug.
Also: sorry if anyone tried to comment prior to this point today, my MySQL tables were slightly corrupted and I had to run a REPAIR TABLE on all of them. It's part of the ongoing server problem here:
.. but I think I finally have that licked.
well, you already said was i was going to say earlier this day (Adblock Plus and server problem).
Anyway, good to see that everything is running fine now.
they've changed their ads to be flashing animations
It's even worse than that -- the page in question has a full-motion *VIDEO* advertisement. Thanks to YouTube, I expect to see more and more ads go to full motion video.
Hmm... maybe the answer is a smart text browser that can extract enough layout information to render a "clean" page. Perhaps cache images offscreen and insert links in the text to quickly bring them up for articles with diagrams and such. Tricky to know what's junk and what is content though.
Advertisement is much better than payments because it allows to influence reader's brains. At a times, it may bring a lot more income. And I see another tendency: merging of ads and content. Just like trademark placement in Bond movies, ads will become hardly visible and tightly integrated into surrounding information. You would not be able to just block it, you would need a sentient filter to extract useful information from the stream fed to you. One more way to waste processing power and support CPU evolution :)
I wonder if ad blockers are part of the reason for advertising becoming more and more intrusive; we all acknowledge that advertising is one of the few things, if not the only thing, that works and yet we try to stop it.
This surely causes an 'arms race' that leads to people trying ever harder to put advertising in front of us.
Jeff said: It's even worse than that -- the page in question has a full-motion *VIDEO* advertisement. Thanks to YouTube, I expect to see more and more ads go to full motion video.
And thus the balkanization: 1) only HighSpeed lines can conveniently use such pages 2) only people who have access to, care enough about surfing and can afford HS will be able to use most of the internet 3) advertisers only want people with change in their pockets, and assume that those without HS are irrelevant 4) net-neutrality becomes irrelevant once advertisers and Rich Eyes descend through this Death Spiral.
It may happen that the True Internet (before .com) will return. It may happen that the cost of energy will rise fast enough that the internet as we have seen it morph, will be too expensive (Vista capable PC, BroadBand, satellite, etc.) for all but a minority. Let them eat dialup will become the mantra of the Rich Eyes. (Yes, I've read the Peak Oil story, and it's inevitable. The only issue is when . Mr. Kafka, meet Mr. Orwell.)
Don't forget the NoScript plugin for Firefox. It cleans up what AdBlock misses, by making JS and Flash opt-in.
I typically allow script on my usual news sources (Google Reader, Reddit, etc.), and most content linked from there is readable without script enabled.
This not only kills annoying animations, pop-overs, and those awful ad-sponsored hyperlinks sprinkled in your content.
Most magazines make their money from the advertisements, some depend on subscriptions to make their income, and newstand sales are almost always a loss. Trade journals do this to extremes, you'll probably see 2/3 of such a magazine be advertisements.
The excessive quantity of advertising and product placement is why I've quit listening to commercial radio and watching TV. If 23 minutes/hour are advertising, just *what* are you watching?
At the bottom of the heap are the trade press, who make most of their money from advertising and would give the magazines away for free if advertisers would let them. The average trade publication is a bunch of ads, glued together by just enough articles to make it look like a magazine. They're so desperate for "content" that some will print your press releases almost verbatim, if you take the trouble to write them to read like articles.
Just learn to ignore the ads, just like you do when watching tv or reading a newspaper. No need to use ad blockers.
It's probably a good thing there is no good free ad blocker for IE, If most people start to use ad blockers there will be no incentive for magazines and newspapers to post articles on the web for free and the web will be a very different place. (like pre 1994, basically only university and student homepages ).
But advertisements have electrolytes that plants crave.
Just watch the movie "minority report" to see what advertising will become.
amazing and scary at the same time.
PL said: "Just learn to ignore the ads, just like you do when watching tv or reading a newspaper. No need to use ad blockers."
If web pages would limit themselves to static ads, then I'd agree with you. But, unfortunately, in the competition for eyeballs, they've changed their ads to be flashing animations (some with sound) and rollovers. It's gotten to the point where you can't actually read the content because all the ad bling rips your eyes and attention away from it. So, even though I enjoy reading certain websites, I've been forced to use Adblock Plus on Firefox to block most ads (I might end up loading FlashBlock, too, since now the Flash ads are taking over and grabbing my attention). When the ads actually subtract from your content, you've gone too far (television passed that point years ago -- I can't watch TV without TiVo anymore). Now the web is going past the point, too.
Ads can really be a pain in the ass. Plus, they suck up loads of precious bandwith. Last month I visited my uncle and I noticed he was using a special program that 'eats' away all ads. He told me he bought a full license, but said the software was available for trial as well. It's called AdMuncher (.com?) and sits in your taskbar, feasting on all those ads. Seems I've gotten so used to them, websites really look weird without all those ads.
It seems to me this is a self regulating issue. If there are too many ads or they are too annoying people will stop using that site. I know I have. I no longer visit any about.com result I find on google. They are probably around 85% ads and they try to open popups. Screw them, I don't need their site.
Several of the code sites have the same issues and I loath visiting them and avoid them if possible.
I can't help but notice that the amount of whitespace also takes up a greater share of the page than the content does. Should we worry about whitespace proliferation too?
As noted, advertising is about the only way to make money on the web. Without profit motive, there's little reason for people to put any content out there, so maybe we should all just stop whining about it?
A world of endless advertising is like other things, made for "average" people and average people is plain stupid.
Among other solutions to filter ads from webpage, take a look of this:
BFilter is Free software released under the General Public License.
There's a reason why you are seeing more and more of this.
Finding and consuming content of value implies a cost. The cost will come as some combination of money and time, and perhaps other scarce resources. Looking for content in a world of ads consumes more of your time, but less of your money then looking through your paid subscription to XYZWeek.
So as one's time increases in value, one is more likely to pay someone else to find the good content, and clean it of ads before delivering it. So ad-based content delivery is just more appealing to those whose time is worth relatively less, OR for whom the ads represent less of a cost, and perhaps even represent additional value.
But that means that, the better market segmentation and ad targeting can be done, the more value that can be delivered in ad-based channels, and the more ubiquitous it will become -- and indeed is becoming.
My favorite part is "Ow my balls!"
Now its much better isnt it?
I only enable flash, when really needed.
pictures are enabled when I choose to (right click+show picture)
The best tool for this in IE is the Proxomitron. It is a web proxy that offers regular expression matching and replacing, as well as a "Stop GIF animation" button.
It comes with a great set of built in filters, but if you are a regular expression junkie you can always add more.
Unfortunately it is no longer supported, but works fine on Windows XP. I haven't checked on Vista.
The only ads I block are the Flash ones. If they don't try to animate their ads I see no reason to block them. For example, Project Wonderful ads are nice and unobtrusive, and they also sell fairly well.
Does anyone read these ads, though? I know I don't. My brain just automatically filters them out and hones in on the content. I honestly don't think I have clicked on a single ad in the history of the Internet (although I might have read one or two accidentally while trying to avoid them). Beyond a certain threshold of advertising, I just navigate away from the page and look elsewhere, making them worse than useless.
This distinguishes TV and Radio from the Internet: under typical viewing conditions the ads on TV and radio are practically unavoidable (and they can still be heard while making a coffee or visiting the bathroom).
I don't feel all that comfortable with adblockers. If ads are the main way for the sites I like to pay their hosting costs, etc, it seems a bit unfair to make that more difficult for them. I do sometimes intentionally click on the ads of sites I like as a "tip" for the site owner. There's your micropayment for ya.
Another trick: always look for a printer-friendly version of the article. Not only do these usually not contain any ads, but they also compress articles spanning several pages into one.
Yeah, now that you mention it, it does look alot like Idiocracy! I watched that a couple of years ago, and it made me feel really good to be a programmer.
(But I also feel a touch of guilt for being part of what allows people to inch ever closer to bring the people of Idiocracy into reality...)
So Jeff, how long did you sit there and watch the Ow! My Balls! thing in the initial opening of the DVD? I think I sat there for 5 minutes at least...:)
I usually block ads, but there's a perspective to have.
Ads can be content.
I know, I know. I thought the same, too. I was in Advanced Newspaper Editing when this concept was first posed to me. I, being all hip and non-commercial, scoffed. And, when the class was over, I found a break area, pulled out a copy of Maximum Rock 'n Roll, saw a Dischord Records ad saying that the new Fugazi album was out, and I achieved enlightenment.
I'm not saying that great gobs of advertising is ill-placed and badly done. I'm not saying that you shouldn't run AdBlock. I am saying that, if they're doing it right, there's some signal you want in the advertising noise.
C'mon, many many people watch the Super Bowl just for the ads....
Way to advertise your back-catalog of posts on Twitter Jeff ;)
2 commenters at the rule of thumb 1% participation rate, that's a few extra readers for today!
Good post though, love Idiocracy.
Make that 3 commenters since your tweet 33 mins ago :)
I hate the rising tide of ads but as a former (TV and web) content producer I used to rely on those to make sure I could eat. If everyone starts blocking the ads then what actually funds the creation of new good content (as opposed to bare minimum quality, heavily sponsored content that's essentially time filling infomercial)?
One idea I thought about (and blogged http://tinyurl.com/aau2xg) a while ago was to have the ad companies support the ability to buy your way out across networks, so I could visit and site and never see a DoubleClick advert because I'm paying them $10/yr which they then split based on impressions with the publishers, or I could watch content from a site like Hulu ad free because I pay them $10/yr (or some reasonable number that enables them to operate)
I'd much prefer that option than the Blade Runner dystopia of advertising blimps feeding me buy now messages every hour of the day
I really do like your approach here. I think when you present things in a shaded manner using color(s) and no content it is clearly obvious that there is too much whitespace and advertisements. Edward Tufte would be proud.
I would totally understand if they had ads going from the upper right, flowing to the upper left and down the left side because according to most interface / eye tracking studies have shown this correlation. The ads on the right side are just pure waste since the average user would not look at it unless on the page for more than a minute.
Very nice article Jeff, I really do like your method(s) of analysis.
PeerGuardian is AWESOME!!!!!
AdBlock is cool, but this little Utility is awesome. It uses block lists to decide which IP you do and do not want to talk to. It blocks out web trackers (like overture and technorati), advertizing sites and entrapment sites (bayTPS and media sentry who spy on music and video people download).
You can download it from here:
When its running you can see all the IPs it blocks. You will be amazed.
When you download, click on Check Updates. The web site is spotty since they get a lot of DDoS attacks by guess who. If you can't update, wait 15 minutes and try again.
Last one! In case (Check Updates) doesn't work, use these blocklists instead:
Make Money Now! says the Google Ad at the bottom of your blog post. Well the advertiser wasted his money on me! Some ad content can be interesting. I don't listen to local radio much (BBC Radio 4, 2, 1 and CD/iPhone mainly), but it would be strange without the colour a few local ads provide.
Thing is, I hardly ever click on ads and usually filter them out mentally.
Is it any different from sports teams selling their arenas to conglomerates? The official title of many sporting competitions, that even the BBC has to use, includes the sponsor's name. The man of the match award is even sponsored now. When I grew up a football team's kit sponsor didn't put their logo on the replica shirts, but now it's not a replica shirt without the sponsor's name. Parents even get upset when the sponsor changes and the kit they bought their child looks different.
Apart from the US tv ad model, where there is no break between programs, but then there are ads seemingly every 5 minutes (and worse, straight before the end credits and after the start credits X( ) what really started to annoy me about US tv last time I was that there was an animated logo in the corner of the screen advertising the next show. Animated network logos are bad enough, but the way Spike TV did it was just cruel. John Henson, if your show was any good, people would have watched it without you appearing in the bottom of the screen every 30 seconds. Sorry rant over. Spike TV was awesome for showing so much Trek, but I disliked the rest of its content greatly, mostly because of the trails for upcoming shows.