What The Verge can do to help save web advertising

Walt Mossberg, at The Verge, points out that lousy ads are ruining the online experience.

No doubt about that. Web ads are crap.

Just try reading the same newspaper story in print and online. In print it's next to a professionally-shot photo in a kitchen remodeling ad. On the web it's next to YOU WILL DIE FROM LIVER FUNGUS UNLESS YOU CLICK ON THIS INFECTED LIVER NOW, done in MS Paint.

And it seems to be getting worse, not better. (Not surprisingly, ad blocking keeps going up.) The ads that provoke blocking and mockery are the same ones that get clicks. Everyone agrees that "we" need to get rid of "bad" ads. But naturally, "we" is defined as "you" and "bad" is "not the ads that work for me."

Print ads stay tolerable because in print, publishers have the market power to enforce standards. On the web, not so much. Mossberg again (read the whole thing):

About a week after our launch, I was seated at a dinner next to a major advertising executive. He complimented me on our new site’s quality and on that of a predecessor site we had created and run, AllThingsD.com. I asked him if that meant he’d be placing ads on our fledgling site. He said yes, he’d do that for a little while. And then, after the cookies he placed on Recode helped him to track our desirable audience around the web, his agency would begin removing the ads and placing them on cheaper sites our readers also happened to visit. In other words, our quality journalism was, to him, nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and would ultimately benefit sites that might care less about quality.

Publishers can't enforce ad standards when an original content site is in direct competition with bottom-feeder and fraud sites that claim to reach the same audience. As Aram Zucker-Scharff mentions in an interview on the Poynter Institute site, the number of third-party trackers on a site grows as new advertising deals bring new trackers along with them. Those trackers leak audience data into the dark corners of the Lumascape until the same data re-emerges, attached to a low-value or fraudulent site that can claim to reach the same audience as the original publisher. Deceptive and extremist sites are part of a larger problem. They're just especially good at playing the same adtech game that all low-value sites do.

So how to turn web advertising from a race to the bottom into a sustainable revenue source, like print or TV ads? How can the web work better for high-reputation brands that depend on costly signaling?

The good news for cash-crunched news sites is that the hard work of web-ad-saving software development must happen, and is happening, on the browser side. Every time a user turns on a protection tool such as Better by ind.ie, EFF Privacy Badger, or the experimental Firefox Tracking Protection, a little bit of problematic ad inventory goes away. Crap sites can only make money from users who are vulnerable to third-party tracking. When tracking protection tools keep ad money out of the nasty corners of the internet, legit sites can win.

For example, if a chain restaurant wants to advertise to people in a town, today they have a choice: support local news, or pay intermediaries who follow local users to low-value sites. When the users get protected from tracking, opportunities to reach them by tracking tend to go away, and market power returns to the local news site.

The Verge and other legit sites are a key part of the solution. The problems of web advertising have grown over years, and won't go away all at once. Sites will have to fix it in a data-driven, incremental way. Fortunately, we're getting the data to make it happen.

Measure the tracking-protected audience. Tracking protection is a powerful sign of a human audience. A legit site can report a tracking protection percentage for its audience, and any adtech intermediary who claims to offer advertisers the same audience, but delivers a suspiciously low tracking protection number, is clearly pushing a mismatched or bot-heavy audience and is going to have a harder time getting away with it. Showing prospective advertisers your tracking protection data lets you reveal the tarnish on the adtech "Holy Grail"—the promise of high-value eyeballs on crappy sites.

Tracking protection is hard to measure accurately, because there are many different kinds. What works for detecting AVG Crumble might not work to detect Privacy Badger. But now anyone with basic web metrics and JavaScript skills can do the measurement with the Aloodo un-tracking pixel and scripts.

Use data to sell brands on Flight to Quality. Real, high-quality sites have branding advantages over generic eyeball-buying, and adfraud is becoming a mainstream concern. The complex adtech that tracking protection protects against is also the place where fraud hides. (Adtech also tends to drag brands into Internet poo-flinging contests by attaching them to controversial sites, but that's another story.)

Higher-reputation publishers need more and better data to take to numbers-craving CMOs. Much of that data will have to come from the tracking-protected audience. When quality sites share tracking protection data with advertisers, that helps expose the adfraud that intermediaries have no incentive to track down.

Use service journalism. Users are already concerned and confused about web ads. That's an opportunity for The Verge. The more that someone learns about how web advertising works, the more that he or she is motivated to get protected. A high-reputation publisher can win by getting users safely protected from tracking, and not caught up in publisher-hostile schemes such as paid whitelisting, ad injection, and fake ad blockers.

Here is a great start, on the New York Times site. Read the whole thing:

Free Tools to Keep Those Creepy Online Ads From Watching You by BRIAN X. CHEN and NATASHA SINGER

Some ways to both help users and work in the interests of a quality site include:

Can't hurt to expose the protection racket behind AdBlock Plus, either.

Beware nerds who claim to fix everything (including me). High-reputation sites are still skeptical about alternate web business models, which is a good move. Better to put the resources into doing some careful adblocker workarounds, advocating responsible tracking protection, and working on magazine-style ads where the four-currency price of accepting the ad is lower than the four-currency price of blocking it.

Upgrading web advertising to a high-signal medium

Why do people watch and share Super Bowl commercials while web ad blocking continues to trend up?

The problem is that the story of web advertising has been one of frantically throwing technology at the lowest-value parts of the ad business while reducing the power of web ads to get a piece of the high-value parts. People who live in market economies are pretty good applied behavioral economists. They'll pay attention to ads that pay their way, with signal, while avoiding cold calls and ads that, through tracking and targeting, work like a cold call and fail to carry signal.

Tim Sullivan and Ray Fisman:

The challenge facing sellers of some genuine product—be it true late-night love or a Tiffany necklace on eBay — and the buyers in search of them is to prove that they’re not just full of empty words. This is where Super Bowl ads come in. Airtime during the game is, of course, fantastically expensive. So why do companies bother buying it? For the same reason that gang members get face tattoos: to prove that they’re in it for the long haul.

Pedro Gardete:

The researchers found that highly targeted and personalized ads may not translate to higher profits for companies because consumers find those ads less persuasive.

Privacy projects such as Better by ind.ie, EFF Privacy Badger, and Firefox Tracking Protection aren't just ways to implement the kind of personal data protection that users want. Those projects can also work in the interests of high-reputation sites, by making signaling work better. Sites like The Verge can help, by helping users squeeze out the signal-destroying tracking and targeting, and helping web ads become a signal-carrying medium.

Next steps: Aloodo HOWTO

Don Marti · #