Clean advertising

Imagine if you were told that fossil fuels were the only way of extracting energy. It would be an absurd claim. Not only are other energy sources available—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear—fossil fuels aren’t even the most effecient source of energy. To say that you can’t have energy without burning fossil fuels would be pitifully incorrect.

And yet when it comes to online advertising, we seem to have meekly accepted that you can’t have effective advertising without invasive tracking. But nothing could be further from the truth. Invasive tracking is to online advertising as fossil fuels are to energy production—an outmoded inefficient means of getting substandard results.

Before the onslaught of third party cookies and scripts, online advertising was contextual. If I searched for property insurance, I was likely to see an advertisement for property insurance. If I was reading an article about pet food, I was likely to be served an advertisement for pet food.

Simply put, contextual advertising ensured that the advertising that accompanied content could be relevant and timely. There was no big mystery about it: advertisers just needed to know what the content was about and they could serve up the appropriate advertisement. Nice and straightforward.

Too straightforward.

What if, instead of matching the advertisement to the content, we could match the advertisement to the person? Regardless of what they were searching for or reading, they’d be served advertisements that were relevant to them not just in that moment, but relevant to their lifestyles, thoughts and beliefs? Of course that would require building up dossiers of information about each person so that their profiles could be targeted and constantly updated. That’s where cross-site tracking comes in, with third-party cookies and scripts.

This is behavioural advertising. It has all but elimated contextual advertising. It has become so pervasive that online advertising and behavioural advertising have become synonymous. Contextual advertising is seen as laughably primitive compared with the clairvoyant powers of behavioural advertising.

But there’s a problem with behavioural advertising. A big problem.

It doesn’t work.

First of all, it relies on mind-reading powers by the advertising brokers—Facebook, Google, and the other middlemen of ad tech. For all the apocryphal folk tales of spooky second-guessing in online advertising, it mostly remains rubbish.

Forget privacy: you’re terrible at targeting anyway:

None of this works. They are still trying to sell me car insurance for my subway ride.

Have you actually paid attention to what advertisements you’re served? Maciej did:

I saw a lot of ads for GEICO, a brand of car insurance that I already own.

I saw multiple ads for Red Lobster, a seafood restaurant chain in America. Red Lobster doesn’t have any branches in San Francisco, where I live.

Finally, I saw a ton of ads for Zipcar, which is a car sharing service. These really pissed me off, not because I have a problem with Zipcar, but because they showed me the algorithm wasn’t even trying. It’s one thing to get the targeting wrong, but the ad engine can’t even decide if I have a car or not! You just showed me five ads for car insurance.

And yet in the twisted logic of ad tech, all of this would be seen as evidence that they need to gather even more data with even more invasive tracking and surveillance.

It turns out that bizarre logic is at the very heart of behavioural advertising. I highly recommend reading the in-depth report from The Correspondent called The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising:

It’s about a market of a quarter of a trillion dollars governed by irrationality.

The benchmarks that advertising companies use – intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed – are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).

Suppose someone told you that they keep tigers out of their garden by turning on their kitchen light every evening. You might think their logic is flawed, but they’ve been turning on the kitchen light every evening for years and there hasn’t been a single tiger in the garden the whole time. That’s the logic used by ad tech companies to justify trackers.

Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for users. The advertisements are irrelevant most of the time, and on the few occasions where the advertising hits the mark, it just feels creepy.

Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for advertisers. They spend their hard-earned money on invasive ad tech that results in no more sales or brand recognition than if they had relied on good ol’ contextual advertising.

Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is very bad for the web. Megabytes of third-party JavaScript are injected at exactly the wrong moment to make for the worst possible performance. And if that doesn’t ruin the user experience enough, there are still invasive overlays and consent forms to click through (which, ironically, gets people mad at the legislation—like GDPR—instead of the underlying reason for these annoying overlays: unnecessary surveillance and tracking by the site you’re visiting).

Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is good for the middlemen doing the tracking. Facebook and Google are two of the biggest players here. But that doesn’t mean that their business models need to be permanently anchored to surveillance. The very monopolies that make them kings of behavioural advertising—the biggest social network and the biggest search engine—would also make them titans of contextual advertising. They could pivot from an invasive behavioural model of advertising to a privacy-respecting contextual advertising model.

The incumbents will almost certainly resist changing something so fundamental. It would be like expecting an energy company to change their focus from fossil fuels to renewables. It won’t happen quickly. But I think that it may eventually happen …if we demand it.

In the meantime, we can all play our part. Just as we can do our bit for the environment at an individual level by sorting our recycling and making green choices in our day to day lives, we can all do our bit for the web too.

The least we can do is block third-party cookies. Some browsers are now doing this by default. That’s good.

Blocking third-party JavaScript is a bit trickier. That requires a browser extension. Most of these extensions to block third-party tracking are called ad blockers. That’s a shame. The issue is not with advertising. The issue is with tracking.

Alas, because this software is labelled under ad blocking, it has led to the ludicrous situation of an ethical argument being made to allow surveillance and tracking! It goes like this: websites need advertising to survive; if you block the ads, then you are denying these sites revenue. That argument would make sense if we were talking about contextual advertising. But it makes no sense when it comes to behavioural advertising …unless you genuinely believe that online advertising has to be behavioural, which means that online advertising has to track you to be effective. Such a belief would be completely wrong. But that doesn’t stop it being widely held.

To argue that there is a moral argument against blocking trackers is ridiculous. If anything, there’s a moral argument to be made for installing anti-tracking software for yourself, your friends, and your family. Otherwise we are collectively giving up our privacy for a business model that doesn’t even work.

It’s a shame that advertisers will lose out if tracking-blocking software prevents their ads from loading. But that’s only going to happen in the case of behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising won’t be blocked. Contextual advertising is also more lightweight than behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising is far less creepy than behavioural advertising. And crucially, contextual advertising works.

That shouldn’t be a controversial claim: the idea that people would be interested in adverts that are related to the content they’re currently looking at. The greatest trick the ad tech industry has pulled is convincing the world that contextual relevance is somehow less effective than some secret algorithm fed with all our data that’s supposed to be able to practically read our minds and know us better than we know ourselves.

Y’know, if this mind-control ray really could give me timely relevant adverts, I might possibly consider paying the price with my privacy. But as it is, YouTube still hasn’t figured out that I’m not interested in Top Gear or football.

The next time someone is talking about the necessity of advertising on the web as a business model, ask for details. Do they mean contextual or behavioural advertising? They’ll probably laugh at you and say that behavioural advertising is the only thing that works. They’ll be wrong.

I know it’s hard to imagine a future without tracker-driven behavioural advertising. But there are no good business reasons for it to continue. It was once hard to imagine a future without oil or coal. But through collective action, legislation, and smart business decisions, we can make a cleaner future.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

John Allsopp

great piece by @adactio on the idea of ‘clean advertising’, advertising without tracking. adactio.com/journal/17658 Bene thinking along these lines lately, and the idea of regulation that simply does not allow cross site tracking period.

Hidde

“Invasive tracking is to online advertising as fossil fuels are to energy production—an outmoded inefficient means of getting substandard results.” – @adactio on 🔥 adactio.com/journal/17658

# Posted by Hidde on Tuesday, December 1st, 2020 at 8:29am

Rod

“Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad…They spend their hard-earned money on invasive ad tech that results in no more sales or brand recognition than if they had relied on contextual advertising.” Excellent article on “clean” advertising: adactio.com/journal/17658

# Posted by Rod on Tuesday, December 1st, 2020 at 10:30am

Jason M. Klug

“I know it’s hard to imagine a future without tracker-driven behavioural advertising. But there are no good business reasons for it to continue. It was once hard to imagine a future without oil or coal.” 👆💯👏 adactio.com/journal/17658

John Wilander

“Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for users. (…) Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for advertisers. (…) Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is very bad for the web.” adactio.com/journal/17658

Jannis Borgers

Das Versagen von Online-Werbung wunderschön zusammengefasst. Wir merken, dass uns Werbung für Sofas gezeigt wird, obwohl wir vor 3 Monaten eine gekauft haben. Und wir glauben, dass es Einzelfälle sind. Ist aber nicht so: Das gesamte Modell ist Schrott! adactio.com/journal/17658

DuckDuckGo

There’s an important distinction between privacy-respecting contextual ads (that we use) & behavioral ads that follow you around. With behavioral ads we’re “collectively giving up our privacy for a business model that doesn’t even work,” says @adactio. adactio.com/journal/17658

# Posted by DuckDuckGo on Friday, December 4th, 2020 at 2:47pm

Laurie Jones

Terrific read about why ‘behavioural advertising’ is just bad on all counts. Not the main subject of the article, but the opening paragraph reminds us in Australia what the rest of the world thinks about fossil fuels. adactio.com/journal/17658

wes

adactio.com/journal/17658 — the enormous invasive tracking and behavioral advertising industries are based on the false premise that they’re effective. Great article by @adactio.

# Posted by wes on Tuesday, December 8th, 2020 at 9:45pm

sinbad

I know it’s hard to imagine a future without tracker-driven behavioural advertising. But there are no good business reasons for it to continue. It was once hard to imagine a future without oil or coal. But through collective action, legislation, and… adactio.com/journal/17658

# Posted by sinbad on Thursday, December 10th, 2020 at 12:35pm

Dave Smyth

Amazing piece on online advertising from @adactio. 👏 Interesting point about the ‘ethical’ argument against ad-blockers: “It goes like this: websites need advertising to survive; if you block the ads, then you are denying these sites revenue.” adactio.com/journal/17658

# Posted by Dave Smyth on Monday, December 14th, 2020 at 8:36am

(・∋・)

“It’s a shame that advertisers will lose out if tracking-blocking software prevents their ads from loading. But that’s only going to happen in the case of behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising won’t be blocked.” 👀 adactio.com/journal/17658

# Posted by (・∋・) on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020 at 1:52pm

Eco Web Hosting

“…when it comes to online advertising, we seem to have meekly accepted that you can’t have effective advertising without invasive tracking. But nothing could be further from the truth.” @adactio discusses behavioural advertising - adactio.com/journal/17658

www.open-mind-culture.org

A gallery of websites with bad UX design, an eleboration on what makes them hard to use, and an analysis how we got there.

# Thursday, January 7th, 2021 at 10:32am

www.open-mind-culture.org

Eine Galerie unpraktischer Webseiten, eine Analyse, was mich konkret an ihrer Usability stört und wie es dazu kommen konnte.

# Thursday, January 7th, 2021 at 10:34am

www.open-mind-culture.org

Als ich neulich nach längerer Pause ein großes soziales Netzwerk aufrief, konnte ich es kaum glauben… Nach diesem Teaser sollte ich jetzt vermutlich den „mehr lesen“- Link einfügen, schließlich darf der Content bloß nicht zu einfach erreichbar sein.

Im Ernst: warum sind so viele große und durchaus erfolgreiche Seiten so benutzerunfreundlich? Halte nur ich es für schlechtes UX-Design? Bin ich bloß zu alt geworden?

Eine Galerie unpraktischer Webseiten und eine Analyse, was mich konkret an ihrer Usability stört und wie es dazu kommen konnte.

Verschwendeter Raum, verdeckter Inhalt

So viel Platz auf dem Bildschirm, und so wenig Platz für den Content? Texte und Wörter werden unnötigerweise abgeschnitten und mit Pünktchen gekürzt. Scrollbars, Links zu weiterführenden Seiten. Dabei wäre genug Platz gewesen, das (für mich) wesentliche auf den ersten Blick ungekürzt darzustellen.

Besonders fies ist die Illusion of Completeness: es gäbe zwar etwas zu scrollen, aber aus Designgründen dürfen die Scrollbars nicht auf den ersten Blick sichtbar sein.

Warum?

Gibt es gute Gründe für solch ein Design? Zumindest gibt es Ursachen.

Werbung

Ist die Werbung wichtiger als der Content? Geld verdienen ist immerhin ein legitimer Grund, seine Webseiten zu verschandeln, aber auch das ginge eleganter. Affiliate Links, Advertorials, kontextbezogene Anzeigen statt Retargeting bereits gekaufter Produkte.

Jeremy Keith schrieb kürzlich, dass die aktuell übliche Third-Party-Werbung nicht nur die Ladezeit und den Datenschutz beeinträchtigt, sondern auch erstaunlich erfolglos ist.

Politik

Erkämpfen wir als engagierte Netzaktivisten unsere Bürgerrechte, setzt die Politik sie gerne auf eine Weise um, die geringen Nutzen mit großer Unbequemlichkeit verbindet. Klar, hier geht es um DSGVO und Cookie-Hinweise.

Call to Action?

Was wollt ihr mit euren Internetauftritten erreichen? Selbst Online-Shops, die scheinbar das einfache Ziel haben könnten, ihre Kunden einfach, schnell und ungestört zur Kasse zu bringen, lenken ab. Ich suche ein Produkt in einer Suchmaschine, werde fündig, klicke auf einen Link, sehe kurz das gewünschte Produkt, dann poppt ein Kästchen auf, das mich zur Anmeldung eines Newsletters auffordert. Und weil Maschinen dumm sind, passiert das natürlich auch dann, wenn ich schon Stammkunde und Leser bin, bloß zufällig im aktuellen Browser nicht angemeldet und daher wie ein Neukunde angesprochen werde.

Schlimmer sind (a)sozialen Netzwerke. Sie erscheinen mir wie Wimmelbilder voller konkurrierender Aufforderungen. Werbung, Stories, vorgeschlagene Trends und Themen, und meist ist nichts davon gerade relevant für mich.

Stockholm-Syndrom

Antipatterns zwecks Kundenbindung? Das Möbelhaus IKEA wurde für kluges Marketing gelobt, weil die nötige mühevolle Mitarbeit („Mach dir Notizen! Finde das Regal!“) die Kunden scheinbar spielerisch einbezieht. Das nötige Engagement und der stolz auf die erreichte Leistung erhöhen angeblich die Kundenbindung.

Für mich klingt das eher nach Stockholm-Syndrom bzw. Sunk-Cost-Fallacy.

Minimalismus?

Eleganz und Minimalismus? Fehlanzeige!

# Tuesday, January 26th, 2021 at 9:45am

www.open-mind-culture.org

When I visited a social network after a while, I could not believe my eyes … After this teaser I should probably put the “read more” link, because these days you hide your content.

Seriously: why are so many large and successful websites so user-unfriendly? Is it only me, or is it bad UX design? Am I just getting old?

A gallery of websites, an elaboration on what makes them hard to use, and an analysis how we got there.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Read the German version of this post (UX-Fail: Wo ist der Content geblieben?).

Wasted space, hidden content

Such a lot of space on screen, but so little space for content? Text and words are being cut off and abbreviated with ellipsis. There are scrollbars and links to further documents. While there would have been enough space to show at a glance what is (at least to me) essential page content.

Especially mean: the illusion of completeness. There is more content when you scroll, but due to design decisions, scrollbars are initially hidden.

Why?

Is there any good reason for such a design? Or at least cause and explanation?

Advertisers

Is advertising more important as content? Making money would at least be a valid reason to mutilate your website. But still there are more elegant ways to do it. Affiliate links, advertorials, context based ads instead of retargeting products that I already bought.

Jeremy Keith recently wrote that the prevailing third party advertising not only deteriorates loading times and privacy, but it did not even prove succesful!

Politics

When we fought for our civil rights, what we actually got were measures with little desired effect, but a lot of inconvenience. I am talking about GDPR and cookie consent dialogs.

Call to action?

What do you want to achieve with your websites? Even online shops, who had one job to make customers buy stuff quickly and easily, are full of distraction. When I found a product in a search engine and click on the link to the shop, I will have a short glimpse of the product, before it gets hidden by a popup to subscribe to their newsletter. And because machines are dumb, this also happens for recurring customers, as they might not be logged into the site on each and every device.

Social networks are even worse. To me they look like “find Waldo” filled with competing invitations, ads, stories, suggested trends and topics, most of which is irrelevant to me at that moment.

Stockholm Syndrome

Anti patterns for better customer retention? The furniture shop IKEA has been praised for clever marketing, as the amount of cooperation required by customers (“take notes!”, “go find the right rack!”) seems to work like a game. Pride and engagement seem to lead to a higher customer satisfaction.

For me, this sound more like Stockholm Syndrome or Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Minimalism?

Elegance and minimalism? Negative report!

Deutsch? Read the German version of this post (UX-Fail: Wo ist der Content geblieben?).

# Tuesday, January 26th, 2021 at 9:46am

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Previously on this day

13 years ago I wrote Brighton, mapped

Celebrating OpenStreetMap Brighton 1.0

14 years ago I wrote Thinktanking

Discussing the meaning of meaning.

19 years ago I wrote George Harrison

I heard the news today, oh boy.

19 years ago I wrote Tenant cuts 7ft hole in billboard blocking his window

Talk about intrusive advertising. I don’t understand how the guy managed to put up with having his view blocked by a billboard for over a year. Can anyone blame him for taking a saw to it?