A new game for web ads

Darren Herman writes that we need to change the online advertising game in order to do something about ad blocking. (Read the whole thing.)

Good points. But in a couple of ways, he's giving advertising credit for too little power and usefulness. And advertising is not just more important than we often think it is, but in more danger than it looks like.

The most widely used content monetization model is coming under threat.

Unfortunately, it's already been under threat for a while. Ad blocking is high profile, but the two stealthier but bigger problems are signal loss and data leakage. Data leakage artificially shifts ad spending away from high-value ad-supported sites, and toward intermediaries and lower-value sites. Many of the low-value sites that benefit are infringing, fraudulent, or outright security threats.

You’d think that people would like advertising because of how directly linked it is to content. I’d argue that some of the best advertisements are really good pieces of content.

Signal is more than just content. Markets are complicated. It's hard for people to locate the valuable goods and services while avoiding deception. The first ads were signs to help people find their trusted vendors, and in a way, ads still are.

When ads build a consistent position, a statement of this is what we do well, this is what we can do for you, then they help people find their way around even in more complicated markets.

If your ad isn't a landmark, but a flyer blowing across someone's path, it's just an annoyance. Advertising offers signal in exchange for attention. Fail to signal, and people will hold back their attention, using automated help where possible.

Ad blocking: it's not just about the annoyance

Users say that they're blocking ads to minimize annoyance, and that's certainly part of it. But we can't understand ad blocking behavior without remembering that back in the days of "Internet Junkbuster," "AdSubtract," "Webwasher," and other proto-adblockers, ad blocking rates were tiny. Those early ad blockers were just as easy to use as the ad blockers of today. They were perfectly effective against late 1990s and early 2000s web ads, which were even crappier and more annoying than today's. What changed? The annoyance level didn't. Signaling value of web ads, as seen by users, did. The answer to "how did ad blocking go mainstream?" is part of the answer to how it will go away again, and a key step how we get to play that new game.

Don Marti · #