Head over to MNN's sister site TreeHugger, and you'll most likely see a banner ad at the top and an ad at the right. These are usually, but not always, very well-targeted ads from Google. When I was managing editor, I would sometimes get emails in all upper case, screaming "WHY IS YOUR SITE COVERED WITH ADS FOR VIAGRA?" I'd try to explain that it means, well ... um, that at some point recently Google sensed that you were looking at ads for Viagra (or you fit the demographic of someone who might do that) and it assumes that's what you want to see.
Sometimes the ads are amazingly well-targeted. But today, for some reason, Google is trying to sell me a new car — an SUV, no less, when I have spent 10 years complaining about SUVs. Perhaps it's because I looked at a Subaru ad last week.
Ads used to be sort of curated, sold by in-house ad staff and selected as being appropriate for the site; there were no SUV ads then. The ads were also small, simple and static.
Today, it's all very annoying. Ads today run scripts and videos that take up bandwidth and slow down loading. And I don't want to look at ads for SUVs or vitamin pills. It's no wonder that more and more people are using ad-blocking software. According to one study, as much as $22 billion in ad revenue has been lost this year due to ad blocking. Right now, only 15 percent of Americans use ad blockers (it's much higher in Europe), but it's about to get much worse, as Apple introduces it as part of its next Safari update. As Michael Wolff notes in USA Today:
There have been various ways of seeing this as someone else’s problem: a European problem, where much of the software has been developed; an ad industry problem for not making ads more engaging; and even a software problem in which blocking software itself needed to be blocked. But with Apple’s move to supply ad blockers with iPhones and Safari, it now has become everybody’s problem or, most specifically Google’s problem, or, simply, an idea whose time has come. Technology disrupts technology.
It's also our problem. Some people think what's happening is a good thing, that it will force advertisers to stop creating such terrible ads. Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times writes:
But in the long run, there could be a hidden benefit to blocking ads for advertisers and publishers: Ad blockers could end up saving the ad industry from its worst excesses. If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive and far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail.
I always thought that the answer was to learn from print magazines, particularly those in fashion, where the ads are beautifully produced, artfully laid out and are seen as content. Looking at the men's fashion magazine from last weekend's New York Times, the production value of the ads is as good as the content, and they fit together perfectly. Alas, instead of treating ads like they're going in Vogue, our advertisers treat them as late-night infomercials.
Some websites are fighting back against the ad blockers. Mashable describes how the Washington Post is experimenting with a pop-up that blocks the reader from seeing content unless he signs up for a newsletter. Others work on different economic models, like MNN does with sponsorships.
One of my favorite sites, the Guardian, tries to guilt readers into supporting the site in other ways; the site introduced a "membership" program. That can work for a site as big and deep as the Guardian, but it won't work for a TreeHugger. Unfortunately, nobody really knows what the answer is, and as Wolff concludes, it's just going to get worse.
It is, for better or worse, and whether we know it or not, or are prepared for it or paralyzed by the incomprehensible horror of it, a post-advertising world. That’s the media revolution. Not technology.
It certainly isn't just TreeHugger. Almost the entire Web runs on ads to some degree. I wonder what we'll all be reading in two years?