Tags: advertising

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AMPed up

Apple has Apple News. Facebook has Instant Articles. Now Google has AMP: Accelerated Mobile Pages.

The big players sure are going to a lot of effort to reinvent RSS.

That may sound like a flippant remark, but it’s not too far from the truth. In the case of Apple News, its current incarnation appears to be quite literally an RSS reader, at least until the unveiling of the forthcoming Apple News Format.

Google’s AMP project looks a little bit different to the offerings from Facebook and Apple. Rather than creating a proprietary format from scratch, it mandates a subset of HTML …with some proprietary elements thrown in (or, to use the more diplomatic parlance of the extensible web, custom elements).

The idea is that alongside the regular HTML version of your document, you provide a corresponding AMP HTML version. Because the AMP HTML version will be leaner and meaner, user agents can then grab the AMP HTML version and present that to the end user for a faster browsing experience.

So if an RSS feed is an alternate representation of a homepage or a listing of articles, then an AMP document is an alternate representation of a single article.

Now, my own personal take on providing alternate representations of documents is “Sure. Why not?” Here on adactio.com I provide RSS feeds. On The Session I provide RSS, JSON, and XML. And on Huffduffer I provide RSS, Atom, JSON, and XSPF, adding:

If you would like to see another format supported, share your idea.

Also, each individual item on Huffduffer has a corresponding oEmbed version (and, in theory, an RDF version)—an alternate representation of that item …in principle, not that different from AMP. The big difference with AMP is that it’s using HTML (of sorts) for its format.

All of this sounds pretty reasonable: provide an alternate representation of your canonical HTML pages so that user-agents (Twitter, Google, browsers) can render a faster-loading version …much like an RSS reader.

So should you start providing AMP versions of your pages? My initial reaction is “Sure. Why not?”

The AMP Project website comes with a list of frequently asked questions, which of course, nobody has asked. My own list of invented frequently asked questions might look a little different.

Will this kill advertising?

We live in hope.

Alas, AMP pages will still be able to carry advertising, but in a restricted form. No more scripts that track your movement across the web …unless the script is from an authorised provider, like say, Google.

But it looks like the worst performance offenders won’t be able to get their grubby little scripts into AMP pages. This is a good thing.

Won’t this kill journalism?

Of all the horrid myths currently in circulation, the two that piss me off the most are:

  1. Journalism requires advertising to survive.
  2. Advertising requires invasive JavaScript.

Put the two together and you get the gist of most of the chicken-littling articles currently in circulation: “Journalism requires invasive JavaScript to survive.”

I could argue against the first claim, but let’s leave that for another day. Let’s suppose for now that, sure, journalism requires advertising to survive. Fine.

It’s that second point that is fundamentally wrong. The idea that the current state of advertising is the only way of advertising is incredibly short-sighted and misguided. Invasive JavaScript is not a requirement for showing me an ad. Setting a cookie is not a requirement for showing me an ad. Knowing where I live, who my friends are, what my income level is, and where I’ve been on the web …none of these are requirements for showing me an ad.

It is entirely possible to advertise to me and treat me with respect at the same time. The Deck already does this.

And you know what? Ad networks had their chance. They had their chance to treat us with respect with the Do Not Track initiative. We asked them to respect our wishes. They told us get screwed.

Now those same ad providers are crying because we’re installing ad blockers. They can get screwed.

Anyway.

It is entirely possible to advertise within AMP pages …just not using blocking JavaScript.

For a nicely nuanced take on what AMP could mean for journalism, see Joshua Benton’s article on Nieman Lab—Get AMP’d: Here’s what publishers need to know about Google’s new plan to speed up your website.

Why not just make faster web pages?

Excellent question!

For a site like adactio.com, the difference between the regular HTML version of an article and the corresponding AMP version of the same article is pretty small. It’s a shame that I can’t just say “Hey, the current version of the article is the AMP version”, but that would require that I only use a subset of HTML and that I add some required guff to my page (including an unnecessary JavaScript file).

But for most of the news sites out there, the difference between their regular HTML pages and the corresponding AMP versions will be pretty significant. That’s because the regular HTML versions are bloated with third-party scripts, oversized assets, and cruft around the actual content.

Now it is in theory possible for these news sites to get rid of all those things, and I sincerely hope that they will. But that’s a big political struggle. I am rooting for developers—like the good folks at VOX—who have to battle against bosses who honestly think that journalism requires invasive JavaScript. Best of luck.

Along comes Google saying “If you want to play in our sandbox, you’re going to have to abide by our rules.” Those rules include performance best practices (for the most part—I take issue with some of the requirements, and I’ll go into that in more detail in a moment).

Now when the boss says “Slap a three megabyte JavaScript library on it so we can show a carousel”, the developers can only respond with “Google says No.”

When the boss says “Slap a ton of third-party trackers on it so we can monetise those eyeballs”, the developers can only respond with “Google says No.”

Google have used their influence like this before and it has brought them accusations of monopolistic abuse. Some people got very upset when they began labelling (and later ranking) mobile-friendly pages. Personally, I’ve got no issue with that.

In this particular case, Google aren’t mandating what you can and can’t do on your regular HTML pages; only what you can and can’t do on the corresponding AMP page.

Which brings up another question…

Will the AMP web kill the open web?

If we all start creating AMP versions of our pages, and those pages are faster than our regular HTML versions, won’t everyone just see the AMP versions without ever seeing the “full” versions?

Tim articulates a legitimate concern:

This promise of improved distribution for pages using AMP HTML shifts the incentive. AMP isn’t encouraging better performance on the web; AMP is encouraging the use of their specific tool to build a version of a web page. It doesn’t feel like something helping the open web so much as it feels like something bringing a little bit of the walled garden mentality of native development onto the web.

That troubles me. Using a very specific tool to build a tailored version of my page in order to “reach everyone” doesn’t fit any definition of the “open web” that I’ve ever heard.

Fair point. But I also remember that a lot of people were upset by RSS. They didn’t like that users could go for months at a time without visiting the actual website, and yet they were reading every article. They were reading every article in non-browser user agents in a format that wasn’t HTML. On paper that sounds like the antithesis of the open web, but in practice there was always something very webby about RSS, and RSS feed readers—it put the power back in the hands of the end users.

Some people chose not to play ball. They only put snippets in their RSS feeds, not the full articles. Maybe some publishers will do the same with the AMP versions of their articles: “To read more, click here…”

But I remember what generally tended to happen to the publishers who refused to put the full content in their RSS feeds. We unsubscribed.

Still, I share the concern that any one company—whether it’s Facebook, Apple, or Google—should wield so much power over how we publish on the web. I don’t think you have to be a conspiracy theorist to view the AMP project as an attempt to replace the existing web with an alternate web, more tightly controlled by Google (albeit a faster, more performant, tightly-controlled web).

My hope is that the current will flow in both directions. As well as publishers creating AMP versions of their pages in order to appease Google, perhaps they will start to ask “Why can’t our regular pages be this fast?” By showing that there is life beyond big bloated invasive web pages, perhaps the AMP project will work as a demo of what the whole web could be.

I’ve been playing around with the AMP HTML spec. It has some issues. The good news is that it’s open source and the project owners seem receptive to feedback.

JavaScript

No external JavaScript is allowed in an AMP HTML document. This covers third-party libraries, advertising and tracking scripts. This is A-okay with me.

The reasons given for this ban are related to performance and I agree with them completely. Big bloated JavaScript libraries are one of the biggest performance killers on the web. I’m happy to leave them at the door (although weirdly, web fonts—another big performance killer—are allowed in).

But then there’s a bit of an about-face. In order to have a valid AMP HTML page, you must include a piece of third-party JavaScript. In this case, the third party is Google and the JavaScript file is what handles the loading of assets.

This seems a bit strange to me; on the one hand claiming that third-party JavaScript is bad for performance and on the other, requiring some third-party JavaScript. As Justin says:

For me this is loading one thing too many… the AMP JS library. Surely the document itself is going to be faster than loading a library to try and make it load faster.

On the plus side, this third-party JavaScript is loaded asynchronously. It seems to mostly be there to handle the rendering of embedded content: images, videos, audio, etc.

Embedded content

If you want audio, video, or images on your page, you must use propriet… custom elements like amp-audio, amp-video, and amp-img. In the case of images, I can see how this is a way of getting around the browser’s lookahead pre-parser (although responsive images also solve this problem). In the case of audio and video, the standard audio and video elements already come with a way of specifying preloading behaviour using the preload attribute. Very odd.

Justin again:

I’m not sure if this is solving anything at the moment that we’re not already fixing with something like responsive images.

To use amp-img for images within the flow of a document, you’ll need to specify the dimensions of the image. This makes sense from a rendering point of view—knowing the width and height ahead of time avoids repaints and reflows. Alas, in many of the cases here on adactio.com, I don’t know the dimensions of the images I’m including. So any of my AMP HTML pages that include images will be invalid.

Overall, the way that AMP HTML handles embedded content looks like a whole lot of wheel reinvention. I like the idea of providing custom elements as an option for authors. I hate the idea of making them a requirement.

Metadata

If you want to provide metadata about your document, AMP HTML currently requires the use of Google’s Schema.org vocabulary. This has a big whiff of vendor lock-in to it. I’ve flagged this up as an issue and Aaron is pushing a change so hopefully this will be resolved soon.

Accessibility

In its initial release, the AMP HTML spec came with some nasty surprises for accessibility. The biggest is probably the requirement to include this in your viewport meta element:

maximum-scale=1,user-scalable=no

Yowzers! That’s some slap in the face to decent web developers everywhere. Fortunately this has been flagged up and I’m hoping it will be fixed soon.

If it doesn’t get fixed, it’s quite a non-starter. It beggars belief that Google would mandate to authors that they must make their pages inaccessible to pinch/zoom. I would hope that many developers would rebel against such a draconian injunction. If that happens, it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of those theoretically badly-formed AMP HTML documents. Technically, they will fail validation, but for very good reason. Will those accessible documents be rejected?

Please get involved on this issue if this is important to you (hint: this should be important to you).

There are a few smaller issues. Initially the :focus pseudo-class was disallowed in author CSS, but that’s being fixed.

Currently AMP HTML documents must have this line:

<style>body {opacity: 0}</style><noscript><style>body {opacity: 1}</style></noscript>

shudders

That’s a horrible conflation of JavaScript availability and CSS. It’s being fixed though, and soon all the opacity jiggery-pokery will only happen via JavaScript, which will be a big improvement: it should either all happen in CSS or all happen in JavaScript, but not the current mixture of the two.

Discovery

The AMP HTML version of your page is not the canonical version. You can specify where the real HTML version of your document is by using rel="canonical". Great!

But how do you link from your canonical page out to the AMP HTML version? Currently you’re supposed to use rel="amphtml". No, they haven’t checked the registry. Again. I’ll go in and add it.

In the meantime, I’m also requesting that the amphtml value can be combined with the alternate value, seeing as rel values can be space separated:

rel="alternate amphtml" type="text/html"

See? Not that different to RSS:

rel="alterate" type="application/rss+xml"

POSSE

When I publish something on adactio.com in HTML, it already gets syndicated to different places. This is the Indie Web idea of POSSE: Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. As well as providing RSS feeds, I’ve also got Twitter bots that syndicate to Twitter. An If This, Then That script pushes posts to Facebook. And if I publish a photo, it goes to Flickr. Now that Medium is finally providing a publishing API, I’ll probably start syndicating articles there as well. The more, the merrier.

From that perspective, providing AMP HTML pages feels like just one more syndication option. If it were the only option, and I felt compelled to provide AMP versions of my content, I’d be very concerned. But for now, I’ll give it a whirl and see how it goes.

Here’s a bit of PHP I’m using to convert a regular piece of HTML into AMP HTML—it’s horrible code; it uses regular expressions on HTML which, as we all know, will summon the Elder Gods.

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?

August in America, day fifteen

Being a beachy surfer kind of place, it made sense that we spent our last day in San Diego hanging out by the beach. We went to La Jolla. We watched people swim, snorkel, and paddle-board. In amongst the human activity, we also saw the occasional seal pop its head out of the water.

It was another beautiful day in San Diego. It was also my last day in San Diego: tomorrow I head north to San Francisco.

I was all set for another flight until disastrously my Kindle gave up the ghost. The e-ink display is b0rked, permanently showing half of Jane Austen and half of a New Aesthetic glitch. So on the way to dinner at the Stone Brewery this evening, we stopped off at a Best Buy so I could slap down some money to buy a bog-standard non-touch, non-white Kindle.

Imagine my disgust when I get it home, charged it up, connected it to a WiFi network, registered it, and discovered that it comes encumbered with advertising that can’t be switched off (the Amazon instructions for unsubscribing from these “special offers”—by paying to do so—don’t work if your device is registered with a UK Amazon account).

A little bit of Googling revealed that the advertising infestation resides in a hidden folder named /system/.assets. If you replace this folder with an empty file (and keep WiFi switched off by having your Kindle in airplane mode), then the advertising is cast out.

So connect your Kindle—that you bought, with your money—to your Mac, open up the Terminal and type:

cd /Volumes/Kindle/system
rm -r .assets
touch .assets

Now I can continue to read The Shining Girls in peace on my flight to San Francisco tomorrow.

Getting ahead in advertising

One of the other speakers at this year’s Webstock was Matthew Inman. While he was in Wellington, he published a new Oatmeal comic called I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened.

I can relate to the frustration he describes. I watched most of Game of Thrones while I was in Arizona over Christmas. I say “most” because the final episode was shown on the same day that Jessica and I were flying back to the UK. Once we got back home, we tried to obtain that final episode by legal means. We failed. And so we torrented it …just as described in Matt’s comic.

Andy Ihnatko posted a rebuttal to the Oatmeal called Heavy Hangs The Bandwidth That Torrents The Crown in which he equates Matt’s sense of entitlement to that described by Louis C.K.:

The single least-attractive attribute of many of the people who download content illegally is their smug sense of entitlement.

As Marco Arment points out, Andy might be right but it’s not a very helpful approach to solving the real problem:

Relying solely on yelling about what’s right isn’t a pragmatic approach for the media industry to take. And it’s not working. It’s unrealistic and naïve to expect everyone to do the “right” thing when the alternative is so much easier, faster, cheaper, and better for so many of them.

The pragmatic approach is to address the demand.

I was reminded of this kind of stubborn insistence in defending the old way of doing things while I was thinking about …advertising.

Have a read of this wonderful anecdote called TV Is Broken which describes the reaction of a young girl thitherto only familiar with on-demand streaming of time-shifted content when she is confronted with the experience of watching “regular” television:

“Did it break?”, she asks. It does sometimes happen at home that Flash or Silverlight implode, interrupt her show, and I have to fix it.

“No. It’s just a commercial.”

“What’s a commercial?”, she asks.

“It is like little shows where they tell you about other shows and toys and snacks.”, I explain.

“Why?”

“Well the TV people think you might like to know about this stuff.”

“This is boring! I want to watch Shrek.”

Andy Ihnatko might argue that the young girl needs to sit there and just take the adverts because, hey, that’s the way things have always worked in the past, dagnabbit. Advertising executives would agree. They would, of course, be completely and utterly wrong. Just because something has worked a certain way in the past doesn’t mean it should work that way in the future. If anything, it is the media companies and advertisers who are the ones debilitated by a sense of self-entitlement.

Advertising has always felt strange on the web. It’s an old-world approach that feels out of place bolted onto our new medium. It is being interpreted as damage and routed around. I’m not just talking about ad-blockers. Services like Instapaper and Readability—and, to a certain extent, RSS before them—are allowing people to circumvent the kind of disgustingly dehumanising advertising documented in Merlin’s Noise to Noise Ratio set of screenshots. Those tools are responding to the customers and readers.

There’s been a lot of talk about advertising in responsive design lately—it was one of the talking points at the recent Responsive Summit in London—and that’s great; it’s a thorny problem that needs to be addressed. But it’s one of those issues where, if you look at it deeply enough, keeping the user’s needs in mind, the inevitable conclusion is that it’s a fundamentally flawed approach to interacting with readers/viewers/users/ugly bags of mostly water.

This isn’t specific to responsive design, of course. Cennydd wrote about the fundamental disconnect between user experience and advertising:

Can UX designers make a difference in the advertising field? Possibly. But I see it as a a quixotic endeavour, swimming against the tide of a value system that frequently causes the disempowerment of the user.

I realise that in pointing out that advertising is fundamentally shit, I’m not being very helpful and I’m not exactly offering much in the way of solutions or alternatives. But I rail against the idea that we need to accept intrusive online advertising just because “that’s the way things have always been.” There are many constructs—advertising, copyright—that we treat as if they are immutable laws of nature when in fact they may be outmoded business concepts more suited to the last century (if they ever really worked at all).

So when I see the new IAB Display Advertising Guidelines which consist of more of the same shit piled higher and deeper, my immediate reaction is:

“This is boring! I want to watch Shrek.”

Dyson ball

When I was in Japan last year, I noticed that most advertisements don’t mention URLs. Instead, they simply show what to search for. The practice seems to be gaining ground over here too. Advertising for the government’s Act on CO2 campaign didn’t include a URL—just an entreaty to search for the phrase.

The current television advertising for the latest Dyson vacuum cleaner finishes with the message to search for “dyson ball.” Sure enough, the number one search result goes straight to the Dyson website …for now. That might change if Google were to implement any kind of smart synonym swapping. There would be quite a difference in scale if the word “ball” were interchangeable with the word “.”