October 27, 1994. The first web banner ad was born. HotWired aka Wired placed it on its homepage among the 13 other banners members of the “dirty dozen”. But the legend has this AT&T banner as the forefather of what came to change the way the internet works, and perhaps guide it the wrong way, leading us to the murky waters of 2018’s web.
The idea of catching a user’s eye was simple because the goal was reached fairly easy. They see it – they click it. As time went by and more ads started to appear, ad blindness kicked in and web pages became too snug for just banners. That is when the internet’s original sin was born, the pop-ups. Talk about a broken UX when there was really not much attention paid to UX in the first place.
No wonder pop-ups did not transform well into clicks and resulted in poor ROIs. On top of that pop-ups were so annoying, most browsers from the late 1990’s had a pop-up block feature.
With the internet boom of 2000’s and the unprecedented number of people connected to the web dictated a change to the online advertising industry. With everyone being online, marketers realized it was time to target their ads rather than lure and wait. All of a sudden it’s the search that started to mater. How do you get to the first place of the search query? Obviously, you talk to the guys who make search engines. GoTo.com was an Idealab spin-off and the first service to successfully provide a pay-for-placement search optimization. Marketers were given the opportunity to bid for top search results by referring to the keywords their users are likely to search by.
The can of worms
The finding that ads can be targeted is at the root of modern media. One company built the largest digital empire ever known on that simple discovery. Google. The all-but-ordinary company started as a search engine service but quickly realized that simple search is not where greatness lies. It’s the discoveries beyond the search scope that infiltrate the neverending urge for something else in digital interaction.
Ultimately, it’s not the user that has to initiate the search. It’s the discovery that has to descend upon them.
When the internet was a bridging tool between the knowledge and the people in need of that knowledge, Google flourished. Through AdWords and search advertising algorithms, Google has built its primary source of revenue. Although a task-driven interaction with a search engine did not guarantee clicks, ads became an integral part of the journey when “googling”.
Search advertising monopoly gave Google a mythical power to shape our perception based on who knows what. I hope its money but could’ve been much worse. However, this had to change. Task-driven online presence gave way to another insanity.
What if there is no task? Could you be online without putting anything in that search box?
A hookup service for Ivy League dorms became world’s biggest social network which influence grew to the point where it (almost) spun out of control causing international political feuds, putting billions of people privacy in danger, and making the connection between every human being on the planet possible in a weird and genius way. Facebook.
While Google dove into the production of operating systems, smart wearables, self-driving cars, and AI, what Facebook did, is made people’s meaningless online presence significant by putting ads right into the feed.
Now you don’t need to google anything. The ads will find you based on the information you voluntarily give out.
The picture would not have been complete unless the third force of the Trifecta joined the aggressive web ad society. Amazon, a relentless competitor and a huge pain in the ass for every online retailer in the country and soon worldwide, turned online ads into another battlefield. Apple wants a cut of any company’s sales generated by media ads in their products. Amazon is positive about not sharing any revenue. This means Apple can block the shit out of Amazon’s ads. But what happens when Amazon pays Google to display ads on chrome for iOS?
A huge entanglement of competing interests and a dog fight for a user who is annoyed by ads in the first place.
Starting from the early 2000s, ad-blocking software grew proportionally to the intensity of ad-infused websites and apps. Adblock Plus was the most popular extension for the top 3 browsers, however, eventually, some ads started to get past the adblock due to the deal between advertisers and those who ran the ad-blocking services.
The adversarial position Apple took against the third-parties using Apple’s platform to promote their products and services resulted in the advent of ad blocking. First introduced by Apple in 2015 as part of the iOS 9 update, the original adblock utilized custom content blocking extensions for Safari without an option of adding any third-party ad blockers to the browser.
The iOS Vs Android collision took a new turn. Apple prides itself on its approach to privacy. As Tim Cook stated in Apple’s privacy statement:
Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t “monetize” the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.
With a direct manifest essentially bashing the Google model, Apple says that local information storages and exclusive hardware are the means to protect yourself from the unwelcome content you are getting bombarded with when using Android that has Google’s goldmine in web search built into the home screen of a device.
Google already owns the search. The problem is no one is trying to challenge Google in that part.
Instead, other major players bet on vertical search and a deep intent in a specific area rather than the “know-it-all” method. For that very reason at the latest Google I/O it was all about machine learning and AI, self-driving cars and digital assistants, and nothing about what made Google Google – the search and targeted advertising.
Maybe as the result of the Facebook controversy, it’s kind of too early to get back to the personal data narrative, so instead, why not impress the hell out of everybody with the way AI can mimic a human conversation. Google is desperate to enclose its users further into the ecosystem it has total control of. Their prominent digressions to healthcare, transportation, ethical and cultural upbringing can be Google’s attempts to capture a new niche.
Who ends up benefiting from this “exciting game” of corporate and technological chess? We are. The idea that you can found a digital startup any given day on a viable idea, good execution, and business foresight, is compelling and has proved itself on multiple occasions. However, the survival of independent indie digital startups is compromised by the war between the media giants.
Smaller entrepreneurs on the web are losing the chance to invest in their product distribution and advertising because the inlet in their segment of the market has been raped indiscriminately by the corporate giants.
The ad-blocking movement growth reached its pinnacle in 2016, doubling the number of users blocking ads on all their devices. The follow-up blow conventional ads took was the fact that the majority of users blocking ads were the target demographic of most of the ads. In other words, the internet has belched out ads in their simplest forms. Ads gained more of an anti-marketing feature by being out of place a lot of times.
Medium is the place writers, independent journalists, and people who have something to say in the most pristine way – through writing, enjoy being a part of. Medium runs ad-free which is a rare thing for a free platform on top of all other benefits. Thousands of people have a chance to once again feel what it’s like to respected enough and to be given a truly valuable experience.
Most of us would even be willing to pay for such an experience and it’s not necessarily the money you could be paying for it. Ads for example, on YouTube, have become a sort of tax for quality content. On the last leg, we’d sit through a 5-second ad to watch a 3-hour documentary.
The trade-off between the attention for an ad and quality content does not go in the ad’s favor. In fact, a too long/loud/annoying/cheesy ad might kill the intention to see what’s after it. UI/UX designers put in hours of work into making an organic experience that will not be disrupted by ads. They try to incorporate the principles of better ads, come up with tricks to perpetrate banner blindness and make ads as low-key as possible, while staying in the client’s lane. The future of the desktop web is threatened by the degenerating performance of the websites that are fine with junk ads affecting usability.
Web advertising of today is a multi-level tug-of-war between corporations on a large scale, smaller merchants battling for a place in the sun, and a constant compromise for daily users. We can’t remove ads because of the dollars backing it. We can’t really affect them by design, and now we can’t even block all of them. The irony of this situation is no one ever gets satisfied by the way their ad policy works.
We might already be dying for a change. Could modern decentralized technologies like blockchain help reanimate web ads?