Tags: context

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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.

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, 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.

Friday, March 1st, 2019

Content-based grid tracks and embracing flexibility

This is a really good explanation of the difference between context-aware layouts—that we’ve had up until now—and content-aware layouts, which are now possible with CSS grid:

With the min-content, max-content and auto keywords, we can size grid tracks based on their content. I think this is very cool. If we manage to embrace as much of the web’s flexibility as we can, we can get the most out of these tools, and let CSS help us with designing for the unknown.

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Brutalist Web Design

A website is not a magazine, though it might have magazine-like articles. A website is not an application, although you might use it to purchase products or interact with other people. A website is not a database, although it might be driven by one.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

Resilient, Declarative, Contextual

This is really good breakdown of what’s different about CSS (compared to other languages).

These differences may feel foreign, but it’s these differences that make CSS so powerful. And it’s my suspicion that developers who embrace these things, and have fully internalized them, tend to be far more proficient in CSS.

Friday, March 24th, 2017

Patterns Beyond Context · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

If we describe patterns also in terms of content, context, and contrast, we are able to define more precisely what a specific pattern is all about, what its role within a design system is, and how it is defined and shaped by its environment.

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Content Parity on the web

A couple of years ago, the benefits of separate sites were more clear to me. Today, I can’t think of a good reason to maintain a separate mobile site.

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Designing with context : Cennydd Bowles

A great meaty piece from Cennydd, diving deep into the tricky question of context.

Friday, July 13th, 2012

We’ll tell you what you really want: Mobile context, top tasks, and organization-centric thinking | Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Content Strategist

An excellent follow-up to the recent posts on the myth of mobile context.

You often hear about cutting content to cut clutter. I support this—if you’re cutting the clutter from everywhere, not just a mobile experience.

Maybe the answer isn’t cutting. Maybe it’s learning better skills for designing and structuring complex information to be usable and enjoyable in small spaces.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Mobile > Local « Karen McGrane

Yes, yes, yes! Karen drives home the difference between mobile and local (and there’s more about the myth of the mobile context).

If you’re making an argument for delivering different content to mobile users, or prioritizing content differently based on their context of use, stop for a minute and ask yourself if you mean local content. And if you do mean local content, then say that. Claiming that your travel example extends to cover the “mobile use case” leaves out millions of tasks and users.

Just to belabor this point: people use mobile devices in every location, in every context. Just because you know what type of device someone is using or where she is doesn’t tell you anything about her intention.

Great Works of Fiction Presents: The Mobile Context | The Haystack.

A really great article from Stephen on how we are mistakenly making assumptions about what users want. He means it, man!

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

JoshEmerson.co.uk · Blog · The Responsive Process

Josh goes through the talking points from the recent Responsive Summit he attended. Sounds like it was a great get-together.

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Mobile web content adaptation techniques | mobiForge

This is article is mostly a decent round-up of development approaches to mobile but the summary lets it down by assuming that desktop users couldn’t possibly want the same functionality as mobile users — in my opinion, inferring people’s desires based purely on their device is extremely dangerous and downright patronising.

Friday, May 27th, 2011

susan jean robertson » Mobile Portland Notes

Susan’s comprehensive notes from the roundtable discussion about the mythical mobile user.

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

LukeW | Mobile Context Revisited

Yes! Luke nails the fallacy of the mythical mobile user. Instead of trying to mind-read intent, play to the strengths of mobile devices instead.

susan jean robertson » We are the minority

Another great post from Susan. Not only are we making unwarranted assumptions about what the mythical mobile user wants, we’re basing those assumptions on the worst possible user base: ourselves.

Monday, May 16th, 2011

susan jean robertson » Assumptions

Susan pushes back on the notion of the mythical mobile user.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

It’s the Little Things - “Mobile” versus “Small Screen”

  1. A “small screen” user is not necessarily a mobile user.
  2. A “small screen” device is not necessarily a mobile one.

See also: bandwidth.