Tags: ads

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On The Verge

Quite a few people have been linking to an article on The Verge with the inflammatory title The Mobile web sucks. In it, Nilay Patel heaps blame upon mobile browsers, Safari in particular:

But man, the web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution.

Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking in his detailed response The Verge’s web sucks:

Calling out browser makers for the performance of sites like his? That’s a bit much.

Nilay does acknowledge that the Verge could do better:

Now, I happen to work at a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks.

But still, it sounds like the buck is being passed along. The performance issues are being treated as Somebody Else’s Problem …ad networks, trackers, etc.

The developers at Vox Media take a different, and in my opinion, more correct view. They’re declaring performance bankruptcy:

I mean, let’s cut to the chase here… our sites are friggin’ slow, okay!

But I worry about how they can possibly reconcile their desire for a faster website with a culture that accepts enormously bloated ads and trackers as the inevitable price of doing business on the web:

I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. Here’s another false dichotomy:

If the message coming down from above is that performance concerns and business concerns are fundamentally at odds, then I just don’t know how the developers are ever going to create a culture of performance (which is a real shame, because they sound like a great bunch). It’s a particularly bizarre false dichotomy to be foisting when you consider that all the evidence points to performance as being a key differentiator when it comes to making moolah.

It’s funny, but I take almost the opposite view that Nilay puts forth in his original article. Instead of thinking “Oh, why won’t these awful browsers improve to be better at delivering our websites?”, I tend to think “Oh, why won’t these awful websites improve to be better at taking advantage of our browsers?” After all, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that web browsers on mobile really were awful; incapable of rendering the “real” web, instead only able to deal with WAP.

As Maciej says in his magnificent presentation Web Design: The First 100 Years:

As soon as a system shows signs of performance, developers will add enough abstraction to make it borderline unusable. Software forever remains at the limits of what people will put up with. Developers and designers together create overweight systems in hopes that the hardware will catch up in time and cover their mistakes.

We complained for years that browsers couldn’t do layout and javascript consistently. As soon as that got fixed, we got busy writing libraries that reimplemented the browser within itself, only slower.

I fear that if Nilay got his wish and mobile browsers made a quantum leap in performance tomorrow, the result would be even more bloated JavaScript for even more ads and trackers on websites like The Verge.

If anything, browser makers might have to take more drastic steps to route around the damage of bloated websites with invasive tracking.

We’ve been here before. When JavaScript first landed in web browsers, it was quickly adopted for three primary use cases:

  1. swapping out images when the user moused over a link,
  2. doing really bad client-side form validation, and
  3. spawning pop-up windows.

The first use case was so popular, it was moved from a procedural language (JavaScript) to a declarative language (CSS). The second use case is still with us today. The third use case was solved by browsers. They added a preference to block unwanted pop-ups.

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. There are already plenty of tools out there to route around their damage: Ghostery, Adblock Plus, etc., along with tools like Instapaper, Readability, and Pocket.

I’m sure that business owners felt the same way about pop-up ads back in the late ’90s. Just the price of doing business. Shrug shoulders. Just the way things are. Nothing we can do to change that.

For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.

Every bloated advertising and tracking script on a website was added by a person. What if that person refused? I guess that person would be fired and another person would be told to add the script. What if that person refused? What if we had a web developer picket line that we collectively refused to cross?

That’s an unrealistic, drastic suggestion. But the way that the web is being destroyed by our collective culpability calls for drastic measures.

By the way, the pop-up ad was first created by Ethan Zuckerman. He has since apologised. What will you be apologising for in decades to come?

Reckoning

When I gave a talk with Andy at South by Southwest I jokingly made reference to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. After reading Kathy Sierra’s last post, that joke isn’t funny anymore.

I just want to add my voice to the chorus of right-minded people who find this situation unacceptable. I wish there was some way I could channel my anger into something that would help. In the meantime, I can only echo Tim Bray’s call:

Anyone who is remotely connected with the people doing this needs to dig that story up and tell the community.

There will be a reckoning (and I don’t mean that in some wishy-washy karmic afterlife way).

Gillian McKeith is not a doctor

I don’t like contributing something as simple as “me too!” but I just had to +1 Tom’s post on Ben Goldacre on Gillian McKeith. As he puts it:

There are times when I feel that Ben Goldacre—author of the Guardian’s Bad Science column—should be knighted.

I couldn’t agree more. Be sure to visit his website, Bad Science. As a fan of popular science—by which I mean fascinating subjects made accessible to plebs like me—I applaud Ben Goldacre’s sysyphian work in calling the British press on their over-reliance on pseudo-science. His tireless work on exposing the junk science behind the anti-MMR stories alone deserves everyone’s respect and gratitude.

His latest column, A menace to science quite rightly exposes Gillian McKeith—the TV presenter with a surname worryingly similar to my own—as the crackpot that she is. The article concentrates on her ludicrous “scientific” claims rather than focusing on the side-issue that she is completely unqualified, but I’ve decided to title this post Gillian McKeith is not a doctor for the benefit of future Googlers. It’s official:

A regular from my website badscience.net — I can barely contain my pride — took McKeith to the Advertising Standards Authority, complaining about her using the title “doctor” on the basis of a qualification gained by correspondence course from a non-accredited American college. He won.

With any luck, I’ll receive one of McKeith’s famous cease-and-desist threats.

In other news from Tom, he’s feeling mightily jetlagged, the poor bastard. Having just flown back from Vancouver—a time zone difference of eight hours—I should be in a position to commiserate. But, touch wood, I seem to have mercifully escaped the ravages of jetlag.

And debate goes on

The RSS vine is humming with point and counterpoint this week.

Adobe revealed their new range of icons, based on mashing up a colour wheel with the periodic table of the elements. Lots of people don’t like ‘em: Stan doesn’t; Dave doesn’t. Some people do like ‘em: Veerle does. I can’t say I’m all that keen on them but I honestly can’t muster up much strength of conviction either way.

Let us leave the designers for a moment and cast our gaze upon the hot topic amongst the techy crowd…

Dave Winer looked at JSON and didn’t like what he saw:

Gotta love em, because there’s no way they’re going to stop breaking what works, and fixing what don’t need no fixing.

James Bennet wrote an excellent response:

Of course, this ignores the fact that the Lisp folks have been making the same argument for years, wondering why there was this great pressing need to go out and invent XML when s-expressions were just dandy.

The debate continues over on Scripting.com, where the best comment comes from Douglas Crockford:

The good thing about reinventing the wheel is that you can get a round one.

The discussion continues. Be it icons or data formats, the discourse remains remarkably civil. Perhaps it’s the seasonal spirit of goodwill. Whatever happened to the good ol’ “Mac vs. Windows”-style flame wars?

In contrast, Roger has posted a refreshingly curmudgeonesque list entitled Six things that suck about the Web in 2006. He had me nodding my head in vigourous agreement with point number six:

Over-wide, fixed width layouts. Go wide if you must. Use a fixed width if you don’t know how to make a flexible layout. But don’t do both. Horizontal scrolling, no thanks.

Perhaps I should post my own list of things about the Web that suck, but I fear it would be a never-ending roster. Instead I’ll restrict myself to one single thing, specifically related to blogs:

Ads on blogs. They suck. I find them disrespectful; like going into somebody’s house for a nice cup of tea only to have them try to flog you a nice set of encyclopedias.

Just to be clear: ads on commercial sites (magazines, resources, whatever) I understand. But on a personal site, they bring down the tone far more than any use of typography, colour or layout could ever offset.

I used to wonder why people put those “Digg this” or “Delicious this” links on their blog posts. I couldn’t see the point. But combined with google ads, I guess they make sense. They’re a way of driving traffic, eyeballs, click-through and by extension, filthy lucre. That’s fine… as long as you don’t mind being a whore.

Remember the term “Cam whore?”:

A Cam whore is a term for people who expose themselves on the Internet with webcam software in exchange for goods, usually via enticing viewers to purchase items on their wishlists or add to their online accounts.

I think it’s high time we coined the term “Blog whore” to describe people who slap google ads all over a medium intended for personal expression.

Alas, most of my friends, colleagues and co-workers are Blog whores. Scrivs manages to be Blog whore, Digg whore and pimp all at the same time with his 9 Rules bitches. In his recent round-up of blog designs, he says of Shaun’s site:

In a perfect world there are no ads, but we don’t live in that kind of world yet for the time being we can escape to the land of make believe when visiting Inman’s site.

Well, I see no reason why we can’t all live in that perfect world. In the style of Robert’s ludicrously provocative hyperbole, I hereby declare that a blog with ads isn’t really a blog. So there.

Ah, that’s better. There’s nothing like a good rant to counteract all that civilised discourse.

Happy holidays, Blog whores!