The Advertising Failures of the Web

Too Much AdvertisingI’ve been on the web since its very first days — back when it was just httpd and Mosaic — long before Netscape. So I’ve watched it evolve. There was a (brief) time when blinking text was a cool thing. And then it became a no-no because it was annoying. Overall, changes were for the better. But then people started to figure out how to monetize the web. Advertising started to appear. And the web regressed. Yes, you might have been shamed out of putting blinking text[1] in their pages. But if you have advertising, you can be certain that there will be something at least as annoying on your page.

It seems that there is no end to the madness, however. First we got static images. Then we got animated gifs. Then Flash came in and that continues to be the standard way that advertising is forced on us. But there are even worse ways that we are so assaulted. A common, but old, way is something that is still seen on websites: the double underline. These are horrible active links that cause a popup window to appear if the user is foolish enough to simply move the mouse over them. They are extremely annoying.

Apparently, website owners realized just how horrible these things were, because they are now only seen on smaller websites that are desperate for revenue. The larger website owners seem to have realized that such stupidity actually pushes readers away. But advertisers keep trying. The most recent that I’ve seen is one where the text below a certain point is moved down (sometimes, it is at the very top of the page). Then a video ad is inserted into the gap. It runs silently, unless you run the mouse over it. You can just scroll down below it. But when the commercial is over, it disappear, re-scrolling your screen and screwing up where you are in the text. You can also close the ad, but that requires mousing over it and at least hearing some of it.

I consider this kind of advertisement even worse than the mouse-over pop-ups, because at least they don’t disturb your reading experience if you are careful with them. So the question is how long will these new monstrosities be with us? Is it possible people will be okay with them and the ads will become common? I really don’t know. But allowing such ads shows a complete lack care for one’s website readers.

It seems to me that all of this advertising nonsense stems from the fact that the website community has not been smart about selling advertising. Advertisers get far more bang for the buck in web advertising. When I briefly had Google ads on Frankly Curious, I was outraged that I only got revenue if a user clicked. I could have a banner ad for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Clearly, such an ad is unlikely to get many clicks. But it is actually quite effective in subconsciously causing my website visitors to grab a pint of Cherry Garcia when they are at the supermarket later that evening. The issue is not that I don’t get a couple of cents; it is that Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t have to pay for what is clearly a profitable service provided them.

As a result, website ads have gotten out of hand. If websites only had to provide the ad-to-content ratio that television does, there wouldn’t be a fifth as much advertising on the web. And there wouldn’t be all these horrible “innovations.” As it is, there are websites I avoid — like The Washington Monthly — because they are so clogged up with ads that they take forever to load. It’s sad. And it makes the internet a lot less usable. It’s like living in a William Gibson novel, but without all the cool stuff.


[1] I really wanted to make that text blink, but there is apparently no simple way to do it. Apparently, blinking text can cause epileptic seizures, so it isn’t a good idea even as a joke.

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