Showing all posts tagged advertising:

This Is Where We Are, July 2017 Edition

A quick review of the status of the Big Three1 social networks as of right now.

It seems Facebook is testing ads in Messenger now:

Messenger isn’t really a “free time" experience the way Facebook proper is — you use the former with purpose, the latter idly. Advertisements must cater to that, just like anywhere else in the world: you don’t see the same ads on subway walls (where you have to sit and stare) as on billboards (where you have two or three seconds max and your attention is elsewhere).

I always hated Messenger anyway, just out of reflex because they had felt the need to split it off into a separate app. In fact, I kept using Paper until Facebook finally broke it, in no small part because it kept everything together in one app. It also looked good, as opposed to the hot mess of FB’s default apps.

Between that and the “Moments" rubbish junking up the top of every one of the FB apps, I am actively discouraged from using them. At this point I pretty much only open FB if I have a notification from there.

Meanwhile, Twitter is continuing on its slow death spiral. It is finally becoming what it was always described as: a “micro-blogging" platform. People write 100-tweet threads instead of just one blog post, and this is so prevalent that there are tools out there that will go and assemble these threads in one place for ease of reading.

It’s got to the point that I read Twitter (and a ton of blogs via RSS, because I’m old-school that way), but most of my actual interaction these days is via LinkedIn. I even had a post go viral over there - 7000-odd views and more than a hundred likes, at time of writing.

So this is where we are, right now in July 2017: Twitter for ephemeral narcissism, Facebook for interacting with (or avoiding) the same people you deal with day to day, and LinkedIn for actually getting things done.

See you out there.

Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash


  1. I don’t Instagram, I’m too old for Tumblr, and - oh sorry Snapchat, didn’t see you down there

The Enemy Within The Browser

At what point do the downsides of Javascript in the browser exceed the upsides? Have we already passed that point?

If you have any concept of security, the idea of downloading code from the Internet and immediately executing it, sight unseen, on your local machine, should give you the screaming heebie-jeebies. A lot of work has gone into sandboxing the browser processes so that Javascript cannot escape the browser itself, and later, the individual web page that it came from. However, this only dealt with the immediate and obvious vulnerability.

These days, the problem with Javascript is that it is used to track users all over the internet and serve them ads for the same products on every site. Quite why this requires 14 MB and 330 HTTP requests for 537 words is not entirely clear.

Actually, no, it is entirely clear: it is because the copro-grammers ("writers of feces") who produce this stuff have no respect for the users. The same utter disrespect underlies the recent bloat in iOS apps:

One Friday I turned off auto-update for apps and let the update queue build up for a week. The results shocked me.
After the first week I had 7.59GB of updates to install, spread across 67 apps – averaging 113MB per app.

Okay, so maybe you say who cares, you only update apps over wifi - but do you only browse on wifi? 14 MB for a few hundred words - that adds up fast.

And what else is that Javascript up to, beyond wasting bytes - both over the air, and in local storage?

How about snaflling data entered into a form, regardless of whether it has been submitted?

Using Javascript, those sites were transmitting information from people as soon as they typed or auto-filled it into an online form. That way, the company would have it even if those people immediately changed their minds and closed the page.

My house, my rules. I look forward to iOS 11, and enabling every blocking feature I can.

I really want media sites to earn money so that they can continue to exist, but they cannot do it at my expense. A banner ad is fine, but 14 MB of Javascript to serve me the same banner ad everywhere - at my expense! - is beyond the pale.

Javascript delenda est.

Nonne videtur

Here's why video doesn't work as a general delivery mechanism for content. So far, it has taken me about twenty five minutes to watch about ten minutes of this video. I also had to find headphones and plug them in, and I had to be somewhere I had the bandwidth and leisure to single-task in this way. None of these are givens.

On the other hand, I can consume (or at least skim) text very rapidly. If I just need to get the gist of a topic or answer one question, text is far and away the most efficient way to do it. There is very little as depressing as finding that the only documentation of how to do something is a twelve-minute out-of-focus howto video, filmed on somebody’s cellphone, narrated in a soporific and near-inaudible drone, and of which I care about precisely five seconds.

If someone sends me a piece of text that looks interesting but that I don’t have time to look at right now, I can easily file it for later. All of my text gets saved to one place - in my case, to Instapaper - and I know that when I open Instapaper, I will have a queue of interesting articles, stories, or whatever to read at my leisure.

Video doesn’t work that way. Sure, both YouTube and Vimeo allow me to save something for later, but only for their own platform, so now I have to remember where I saw something to be able to retrieve it. And that doesn’t even account for media sites like the BBC that insist on reinventing the wheel and using their own video platform1.

Also, no service I know of allows video to be saved offline2, so I still have to be online to see my queue of videos that I saved for later. No watching in the plane for me! That’s unfortunate because it’s one of the places where I can really power through my Instapaper queue.

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(me, trying to consume some Branded Content)

That’s not to say I don’t watch video - I do. One of the reasons I own an Apple TV, and have done since the Apple TV 2, is to watch YouTube. There is a ton of high-quality content out there. I’m a car nut, so I have subscriptions to channels like Petrolicious, The Smoking Tire, and Jay Leno’s Garage. The thing is, though, I treat these like watching TV: on the couch, often with a beer in hand, and with a reasonable hope of not being interrupted.

Speaking of interruptions, let’s talk about ads. I have complained before about intrusive video ads interrupting me when I’m reading - but what about intrusive video ads interrupting me when I’m trying to watch video?

Most videos these days have a pre-roll ad - those ads that you can (usually) skip after five seconds3 to get to what you actually wanted to watch. In the context of the ten-minutes-plus duration of the sorts of videos I choose to watch, that’s a minor annoyance at most. On the other hand, if I click on a link from some random site, so with low investment, and the first thing I see is a thirty-second unskippable ad? I’m out of there.

Advertising in text on the other hand can be4 pretty subtle, and if I see something in the sidebar that looks interesting out of the corner of my eye, I can finish what I’m doing and get back to it. In “snackable" social media formats like Twitter or Facebook, ads are even less intrusive, scrolling by in your timeline. I have followed sponsored links from both, whereas I have never interacted in any way with a video ad, except to close it.

In summary

I truly hope that the current predictions of “video everywhere!!1!eleventy" are just the latest helium-infused bout of hype. The noisy, single-threaded future that Facebook et al want to usher us into is not somewhere I want to live. And that goes double for AR - if you think I don’t like the bandwidth requirements and the need for headphones of flat video, imagine if you will the hatred I feel for goggles and clogging my downstream pipe for minutes on end for some show-off animation. No, thank you.


Image by Uğur Gürcüoğlu via Unsplash


  1. The BBC is so benighted that it won’t even let you subscribe to individual video categories, like for instance Chris Harris’ videos. Luckily, there are ways of working around that - so here is my highly unofficial RSS feed that fetches those directly from the Beeb’s own site. Enjoy. 

  2. Okay, no official service. I’m perfectly aware of alternatives, and I’ve even gone mano a mano with rtmpdump in my time, but that’s still not nearly as good as Instapaper, because you have to get those saved videos into iTunes and then synced to your devices. Basically, it’s not worth the effort on a regular basis. 

  3. I have yet to see any ad that does anything interesting with those five seconds. You know viewers have the option to skip after five seconds, so deal with it. At the very least make sure that your brand appears within those five seconds, otherwise viewers won’t even know what they skipped. So many ads fail even this simple test! Better, try to grab users’ attention with the five seconds you have, in the hope that they might sit through the whole thing. Vanishingly few advertisers even try to do this, wasting their five seconds on a build-up to something many (most?) viewers will never see because they have already skipped. 

  4. Often advertising in text is anything but subtle, but it can be subtle. It could be subtle. It will be subtle, or else it gets the hose again. 

Adtech considered harmful

There has been a long battle between advertisers and people who just want to browse the web without ambush videos jumping out at them or overlays taking over their screen. For a while, mobile was spared the worst excesses of badvertising, to the point that people were actually concerned about Facebook’s ability to monetise on mobile1.

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Unfortunately, mobile platforms have now achieved full advertising parity with desktops. Worse, because the screens are smaller, and much of the ad tech still assumes a desktop browser by default, the mobile experience is often worse than the desktop one. For instance, what on the desktop would be a popup or an overlay turns into a complete browser hijack on mobile.

For this reason, and for the performance improvements, I run an ad blocker on my phone. I continue to endure ads on my desktop browsers, because no matter how annoying they are, I realise that it’s currently pretty much the only way journalists on the web get paid.

The problem is that some publishers are pushing back. I followed a link to Forbes on mobile, and got hit with this message, demanding that I whitelist Forbes or else.

How user-hostile is this? I see no benefit whatsoever in logging into Forbes, and given Forbes’ history of serving malware-laced ads, they are the last outlet I would consider whitelisting.

The reason users are up in arms over advertising on the web is its intrusive nature. We all fully realise that advertising is needed to pay for the content we enjoy. However, that does not constitute unlimited permission to assault our eyeballs (and our ears!) and spy on our behaviour.

Ad blockers by and large operate by blocking the big advertising networks. When a user sends a strong signal that they do not like those networks or their behaviours, the correct approach for a news outlet would be to default to display advertising without tracking. This should be a familiar model; it’s how print advertising works. Put an image in the sidebar, or even in the body of the text; that’s not a problem. Hide a video that pops out and starts playing at full volume? Plant cookies on my system that follow me all around the web, not just on the Forbes site? That’s a problem - that I resolve by blocking the source of the video and the cookie.

Publishers that align themselves too closely with the advertising networks are playing a dangerous game. They are already dangerously dependent on those networks for such profits as they can eke out, but those profits are dependent on their continued ability to attract viewers.

If people see a Forbes link and click past it, because they can’t be bothered with dealing with the mess that is the Forbes site, the money spigot will dry up very quickly.


Image by Dmitri Popov via Unsplash


  1. Link from Forbes - I think that’s the definition of “ironic". 

More Thoughts on Ad Blocking

Last week brought iOS 9, and with it the long-awaited support for ad blockers in Safari.

I am not really comfortable with the idea of blocking ads; while it was more or less a requirement to block the worst excesses a decade or so ago if you wanted any sort of usable web experience, on the desktop at least that is no longer the case. It's an open question how much of this is due to adtech providers giving up on their most obnoxious tricks, how much to features like popup-blocking being built in to all major browsers, and how much to ad blocking on the wetware - simply ignoring most of the ads that are served to me.

It's another story on mobile.

Part of the problem is the ad networks themselves. Print publications generally carry significant amounts of advertising, but because it's controlled by the publisher, the ads that make it into the magazines are typically relevant to readers and in line with the rest of the content. For an example of a magazine that gets this right, pick up a copy of Monocle. The ads are for the same sorts of brands that also come up in the editorial content, they are tasteful and well presented, and generally in line with the high production values of the rest of the magazine. The same goes for their advertorials - sorry, branded content: relevant, unforced, clearly signalled, and often actually interesting in their own right - at least if you're a Monocle reader.

Now name the last time you had an experience like that on the web.

You can't - because hardly any web sites choose their own ads. They all sign up with one or several of the big ad networks, and they will serve you whatever they feel is relevant - to their customers, regardless of what you are reading or watching at the time. This disconnect can lead to idiotic consequences, with the same products stalking you around the web even once you've already bought them, or even been prevented from buying them!

So how do we get out of this situation? Micropayments for content do not look like a practical solution, so what can be done to avoid either beggaring online outlets or giving up on protecting our eyeballs and cellphone bills from the worst excesses of advertisers?

If ad networks are the villains - can they also be our saviours? What if they started policing their own ads better, enforcing "polite" ads? At a minimum:

  • No auto playing audio or video

  • No movement or resizing

  • No pop ups

  • No redirects (I see this on mobile, presumably as a side effect of evading pop up blockers on desktop)

  • No faking UI elements (pretending to be an OS message)

  • No excessive size, measured as a percentage of the actual content

I would have no problem whitelisting that network. In fact, if they made a blocker that only allowed through ads that respected such a code of conduct? I'd install that blocker!

Pity it'll never happen. Instead, we will get some sort of buggy-whip-maker protection rule, and we'll just keep muddling along.


Image by Pablo GarciaSaldaña via Unsplash

Crystal Will Not Kill Media

There’s been a lot of talk about content blocking lately, in the run up to the public release of iOS 9 with its built-in support for content-blocking Safari extensions. Straight from the horse’s mouth:

Content Blocking gives your extensions a fast and efficient way to block cookies, images, resources, pop-ups, and other content.

This is something people have been doing on the desktop for a long time. I used to run ad blockers myself, but as I wrote,

I feel that [ad blocking] meets my moral definition of theft. Companies put out content with the expectation of being paid for it, so it seems churlish at best for me to enjoy the content but refuse them the chance to make a fraction of a penny from their advertisers off my enjoyment. There is a line, but nowadays I am more likely simply not to visit offending sites than to try to bypass the ads.

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Jean Louis Gaséee believes that the consequences of widespread ad blocking will be disastrous for media companies.

This is going to be painful for those whose ad-supported business model is in danger of breaking. There will be blood.

I think that may well be true. The current state of ad tech is not ideal, but it’s what we have, and what a lot of people are paying the bills with. However, while we have become used this state of affairs on our desktops, it’s a different story on mobile. On even a single-digit-Mbps home broadband connection, the additional impact on a page load of the ads, analytics and tracking muck is not hugely significant. Our fixed connections are fast and not really metered on a scale where we are watching the individual megabytes.

Neither of those factors holds true on mobile devices. There, connections are slow, unreliable, and strongly metered. Dean Murphy has created a pre-release iOS content blocking extension, and his benchmarks are eye-opening.

On average, pages loaded 3.9x faster with Crystal and used 53% less bandwidth. Just by having Crystal installed, I saved a total of 70 seconds and 35MB of data on these 10 pages.

On mobile, that’s huge. Everyone will want to install Crystal (or similar extensions) for those sorts of gains.

This is without even getting into some of the other aspects of ad tech. Privacy is the obvious one, although for most Muggles it doesn’t seem to be a huge priority. Nevertheless, if you want to scare yourself you can try using the Lightbeam add-on for Firefox to see just how much tracking is happening behind the scenes of even major web properties. That has been true for some time on desktop, though, and hasn’t caused any widespread outrage.

What is different on mobile, apart from connection speed and bandwidth constraints, is the interaction itself. Ads on the desktop take up a relatively small proportion of the screen real estate. On mobile, ads can take up the entire screen when loading the front page of popular web sites. Users have to scroll down an entire screen just to get to content!

In addition, users have been running their own content blockers on their wetware for a while now. I don’t even see standard ads any more, because I have developed reflexes that cause my eyes to scan right by them without ever taking them into my conscious awareness. To force their way past this problem, ad tech developers (one rung up from actual malware developers IMHO) have come up with all sorts of schemes, from interstitials, to CSS-based “popups" that hover in front of the content, to things that zoom out if you inadvertently roll your mouse cursor over them, and no doubt even more heinous variations are in the pipeline right now.

The thing is, on the desktop these things are only moderately annoying. I don’t have Flash installed on this machine, which already cuts down on the potential irritation, and the rest I deal with by simply not visiting especially grating web sites.

On mobile devices, these things are horrid. My wife, normally a sweet and well-mannered person, was reduced to incoherent rage this morning when an ad on a web site she was attempting to visit on her phone kept redirecting her to another site. This was no doubt intended as some sort of grey-area pop-up spawning thing, but iOS simply interpreted it as a straight redirect. Result? That website may have got the one visit and its ad-load, but it will never get another from either of us.

Bottom line? I will continue not to run content blockers on my Mac, but on iOS, I’m installing Crystal as soon as I get my hands on iOS 9.

After the initial period of pain, I don’t think it’ll even be as bad for publishers as they think it will be. I have no doubt that there will be disruption, and some of it will be painful. Some web sites will go down, and while my rational response is that they will be getting their comeuppance for a crappy business model, I do feel sympathy for the writers who will be out of a gig through no fault of their own.

My point is different: as with much of this Big Data nonsense, I have a sneaking suspicion that nobody is actually using any of the data that are collected. My personal experience bears this out. Sure, the gathered data are used in some limited sense, but no truly innovative deep analysis is carried out that you could not have done on the subscriber rolls of the Readers’ Digest back in the day. Dumber web advertising will do just fine without all the tracking and analytics that are de rigeur these days.

Relax and enjoy the resurgence of simple banner ads.


Image by kazuend via Unsplash

Online Shopping

This is how things are now.

The other day I was shopping for some end-of-season discounts on ski gear. I'm okay for snowboard stuff, but I could use some new ski gloves, and you can never have too many socks and base layers.

I found a few things, put them in my shopping cart, but then I got distracted and didn't complete the transaction.

I came back the next day, only to find that the shopping cart had timed out and all my selected items had flown back to their various departments. I didn't really need anything, so I rage-quit the browser tab and thought no more of the issue.

…except that for the last week the retailer has been stalking me around the web, mainly but not only on Facebook, with ads for exactly the items I had been looking at.

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So let me get this straight: you know who I am, you know what I was looking at, and you're willing to pay Mark Zuckerberg to show me ads for those products - but you can't be bothered simply to leave the items in my shopping cart so I could, I don't know, check out and pay you for them?

An ounce worth of common sense beats ten tonnes of "social intelligence", "sentiment analysis", and stalker-ish Facebook advertising - trust me on this.


Image by Elisabetta Foco via Unsplash

Ads and Ad Blocking

In case you are new to this Internet thing, there has been a long-running debate about advertising on the web. Basically, what it boils down to is that nobody has really found a way to pay for doing things on the internet at scale that does not involve displaying advertising to users.

While it is true that display advertising involves less friction than a paywall, there are all sorts of problems with the model. One is simply accounting. Most adverts are paid for based on the number of times they are displayed to users. However, on the web, that just means that the URL was invoked - so it is possible to sabotage a rival's advertising campaign by retrieving the URLs for their ads automatically and very rapidly, until the budget for their ad campaign is exceeded. This prevents humans from seeing the ads, while costing the advertiser a chunk of cash.

The other problem is a variation: just because the ad has been retrieved by a web browser that has an actual human customer - or at least a prospective customer - sitting in front of it, does not mean that the ad gets displayed to that customer.

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These days, most advertising is fairly benign, but in the early days it was a bit of a Wild West out there, with pop-overs, pop-unders, interstitials, and so on. In those dark times normal ad blockers were insufficient, so I used a Firefox add-on called Greasemonkey to actually rewrite web pages on the fly and remove the worst excesses. Nowadays, apart from a few sites (ahem Forbes ahem) that stick by the interstitial, most of those early techniques have mercifully died out.

However, old habits die hard, plus some people seem to be actively offended by ads - in the content they are getting for free, let's not forget - and so very many people routinely use ad blockers in their web browsers.

There has been some debate about whether this actually constitutes theft, although a German court has recently ruled that it does not meet the legal definition of theft.

Regardless, I feel that it meets my moral definition of theft. Companies put out content with the expectation of being paid for it, so it seems churlish at best for me to enjoy the content but refuse them the chance to make a fraction of a penny from their advertisers off my enjoyment. There is a line, but nowadays I am more likely simply not to visit offending sites than to try to bypass the ads.

Problems do remain with this model, not least becase of the sketchy things that it forces people to do:

The second gross thing is that we've given just one more piece of information about our customers to Facebook, but not in a way that is directly useful to us. Even though we're doing the leg work to build up this dossier on our customers, we don't actually get to look into the file. Only Facebook does. When Facebook eventually goes away, the information is gone. When Facebook becomes more extortionate, the information is gone.

The ad blockers are no better on the moral plane:

In a particularly evil move, some ad blockers have started charging ad networks ransom. Ad blockers work by whitelisting some sites and blacklisting others. One of the most high-profile examples of pay-for-whitelisting is a deal struck back in February between Adblock Plus and Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Taboola. The price: “Thirty percent of the additional revenues it would make from being unblocked."

In this situation, the best users can do is to try to tread the middle ground, watching their cookies and occasionally clearing them out, without going so far as to block ads programmatically.

The good news is that I am beginning to see new services that appear to be making subscription models work. I don't know whether this is a function of the particular niches they are in and that catch my interest, my age (I'm a leading-edge "digital native", surfing just ahead of obsolescence), or my disposable income and consequent willingness to pay for good content - but the bottom line is that I don't even see banner ads any more, so it's an easy moral decision to make.


Image by Joshua Earle via Unsplash

Ever tighter ouroboros

Advertising gets meta:

The "Idoru" reference in jwz's title there is sneaky, but what this reminds me of is actually "Virtual Light":

He said he couldn't tell the difference anymore between the 'programs' and the 'commercials,' whatever that meant.

I'm going to go ahead and assume that anyone reading this blog is already familiar with those books.

Advertising

Sorry, sorry, just a little something in my eye…

There, I'm back. Isn't it noticeable that even if all the logos were covered, like some TV shows do, we would still know right away that this is an Apple ad?

Partly it's that they have the confidence not to fall back on speeds and feeds, like many other manufacturers. They remember that people don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

But mostly it's because this ad was obviously made by a real human being, someone who cares. This is why Apple ads actually get views on YouTube - 1.6 million for the video above, as of this moment.


UPDATE: Someone still didn't like the ad, though - and got righteously skewered by the Macalope for their pains.

No ad Apple produces will be considered up to the standard of the serial jerks who judge Apple ads. And every year someone proves that for us.

I should really wrap up some alfalfa or something for the Macalope, given the amount of entertainment the Horny One has given me over the years.