Tags: advertising

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Friday, February 12th, 2021

Prediction

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation becaue the profit invariably falls into two stools. If his predictions sounded at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.

But I couldn’t resist responding to a recent request for augery. Eric asked An Event Apart speakers for their predictions for the coming year. The responses have been gathered together and published, although it’s in the form of a PDF for some reason.

Here’s what I wrote:

This is probably more of a hope than a prediction, but 2021 could be the year that the ponzi scheme of online tracking and surveillance begins to crumble. People are beginning to realize that it’s far too intrusive, that it just doesn’t work most of the time, and that good ol’-fashioned contextual advertising would be better. Right now, it feels similar to the moment before the sub-prime mortgage bubble collapsed (a comparison made in Tim Hwang’s recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis). Back then people thought “Well, these big banks must know what they’re doing,” just as people have thought, “Well, Facebook and Google must know what they’re doing”…but that confidence is crumbling, exposing the shaky stack of cards that props up behavioral advertising. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is coming to an end—far from it. I think we might see a golden age of relevant, content-driven advertising. Laws like Europe’s GDPR will play a part. Apple’s recent changes to highlight privacy-violating apps will play a part. Most of all, I think that people will play a part. They will be increasingly aware that there’s nothing inevitable about tracking and surveillance and that the web works better when it respects people’s right to privacy. The sea change might not happen in 2021 but it feels like the water is beginning to swell.

Still, predicting the future is a mug’s game with as much scientific rigour as astrology, reading tea leaves, or haruspicy.

Much like behavioural advertising.

Why The IndieWeb? (Webbed Briefs)

Heydon keeps on producing more caustically funny videos that are made for me. After the last one about progressive enhancement, this one is about the indie web.

This is the story of the birth of the web, its loss of innocence, its decline, and what we can do to make it a bit less gross.

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

Contextual ads | Dave Smyth

If behavioural ads aren’t more effective than contextual ads, what is all of that data collected for?

If websites opted for a context ads and privacy-focused analytics approach, cookie banners could become obsolete…

Saturday, December 19th, 2020

Facebook’s Attempt to Vilify Apple — Pixel Envy

See, that’s what I’m talking about;

Levy deftly conflates “advertising” and “personalized advertising”, as if there are no ways to target people planning a wedding without surveilling their web browsing behaviour. Facebook’s campaign casually ignores decades of advertising targeted based on the current webpage or video instead of who those people are because it would impact Facebook’s primary business. Most people who are reading an article about great wedding venues are probably planning a wedding, but you don’t need quite as much of the ad tech stack to make that work.

Monday, December 14th, 2020

FSG Originals | Subprime Attention Crisis

For anyone who expressed doubt at my depiction of behavioural advertising simply not working, this book by Tim Hwang is for you:

From the unreliability of advertising numbers and the unregulated automation of advertising bidding wars, to the simple fact that online ads mostly fail to work, Hwang demonstrates that while consumers’ attention has never been more prized, the true value of that attention itself—much like subprime mortgages—is wildly misrepresented.

Monday, November 30th, 2020

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.

Why The Web Is Such A Mess - YouTube

Tom gives a succinct history of the ongoing arms race between trackers and end users.

Why The Web Is Such A Mess

Friday, October 16th, 2020

How To Protect Your Privacy Online In 8 Tips : Life Kit : NPR

Take a look at your smartphone and delete all the apps you don’t really need. For many tasks, you can use a browser on your phone instead of an app.

Privacy-wise, browsers are preferable, because they can’t access as much of your information as an app can.

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020

Feds may target Google’s Chrome browser for breakup - POLITICO

The unfair collusion between Google AMP and Google Search might just bite ‘em on the ass.

Monday, April 6th, 2020

The beauty of modern mobile websites · Pushing Pixels

Two observations of websites on mobile devices today:

  1. They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
  2. I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.

Both observations are the result of conscious design decisions.

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

The modern web is becoming an unusable, user-hostile wasteland

If you add another advertisement to your pages, you generate more revenue. If you track your users better, now you can deliver tailored ads and your conversion rates are higher. If you restrict users from leaving your walled garden ecosystem, now you get all the juice from whatever attention they have.

The question is: At which point do we reach the breaking point?

And I think the answer is: We are very close.

Facebook. Twitter. Medium. All desparate to withhold content they didn’t even create until you cough up your personal details.

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising - The Correspondent

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).

It gets worse: the brightest minds of this generation are creating algorithms which only increase the effects of selection.

A terrificly well-written piece on the emperor’s new clothes worn by online advertising. Equal parts economic rigour and Gladwellian anecdata, it’s a joy to read! Kudos to Alana Gillespie for the great translation work (the original article was written in Dutch).

We currently assume that advertising companies always benefit from more data. … But the majority of advertising companies feed their complex algorithms silos full of data even though the practice never delivers the desired result. In the worst case, all that invasion of privacy can even lead to targeting the wrong group of people.

This insight is conspicuously absent from the debate about online privacy. At the moment, we don’t even know whether all this privacy violation works as advertised.

The interaction design of this article is great too—annotations, charts, and more!

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die — by Craig Mod

Craig compares and contrasts books to “attention monsters”:

That is, any app / service / publication whose business is predicated on keeping a consumer engaged and re-engaged for the benefit of the organization (often to the detriment of the mental and physical health of the user), dozens if not hundreds or thousands of times a day.

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

Have we reached Peak Data?

Matt’s publishing a newsletter on the past, present, and future of tracking:

The last 100 years have been a journey to see how to measure ghosts - how to measure the invisible audiences at the end of technological distribution networks. With every decade, these ghosts have come more and more into focus, ending with a the last ten years of social media and digital advertising that has created unimaginable amounts of data about everything we see, read, click and like.

He sees the pendulum swinging the other way now …for those who can afford it:

If there’s one constant in the economics of audience data over the last 100 years, is that we only get free services if we pay for them with our attention. This has been true for commercial radio and television, free newspapers, mobile games and digital content. If we want privacy, we have to pay for it, and not everyone can afford this. Will the right to become a ghost only be for the people with money to buy premium products?

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

Test the impact of ads and third party scripts

This is a very useful new feature in Calibre, the performance monitoring tool. Now you can get data about just how much third-party scripts are affecting your site’s performance:

The best way of circumventing fear and anxiety around third party script performance is to capture metrics that clearly articulate their performance impact.

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

Forget privacy: you’re terrible at targeting anyway - apenwarr

A spot-on description of how targetted advertising works …or rather, how it doesn’t.

They are still trying to sell me car insurance for my subway ride.

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

Winston Hearn | What’s best for users

The incentives that Google technology created were very important in the evolution of this current stage of the web. I think we should be skeptical of AMP because once again a single company’s technology – the same single company – is creating the incentives for where we go next.

A thorough examination of the incentives that led to AMP, and the dangers of what could happen next:

I’m not sure I am yet willing to cede the web to a single monopolized company.

Saturday, July 21st, 2018

Home Refreshment

A nifty little responsive demo from Nick, recreating a 1948 Coca-Cola ad that was designed to be responsive to different wall spaces.

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

Fixing these webs - daverupert.com

I’m a fan of fast websites. Your website needs to be fast. Our collective excuses, hand-wringing, and inability to come to terms with the problem-set (There is too much script) and solutions (Use less script) of modern web development is getting tired.

I agree with every word of this.

Sadly, I think the one company with a browser that has marketshare dominance and could exert the kind of pressure required to stop ad tracking and surveillance capitalism is not incentivized to do so.

So the problem is approached from the other end. Blame is piled on authors for slow first-party code. We’re told to use certain mobile publishing frameworks that syndicate to proprietary CDNs to appease the gods of luck and fortune.

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Cory Doctorow: Zuck’s Empire of Oily Rags – Locus Online

Facebook doesn’t have a mind-control problem, it has a corruption problem. Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.