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blog: Don Marti

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improving web advertising

28 November 2021

What does improving web advertising mean? Some possible answers.

  1. Advertising reaches the intended human audience

  2. Advertising is placed in a context appropriate to the product or service advertised (brand safety)

  3. Placement and reporting complies with information sharing and processing laws and norms (privacy where the information is personal, data leakage where the information is business)

You can't crank up any of them and leave the others go. Fail on (3) and deceptive advertisers outcompete the honest ones so the whole medium becomes untrustworthy. Fail on (2) and low-quality scraper and misinfo sites can outcompete legit ad-supported sites. Fail on (1) and the advertisers stop supporting the web, and all the ad money goes to Facebook, which is sub-optimal for some or many advertisers depending on time preferences. There are enough deceptive and/or hostile parties out there that some of the failure modes for web ads are risks to civilization, so you are probably set if you're trying to justify working on this stuff to Future You.

The fun part, though, is that web advertising can't really work the same as other online (software-intermediated?) ad platforms. The web is (user + client)/server. The client software is the agent of the user and is expected to operate in the user's interests. Other online ad media such as native mobile apps and connected TV are user/(client + server) The client software is provided by, and under the control of, another party. The user may even be a party to an end-user license agreement where they agree not to interfere with the client software's ability to act in another party's interests.

It's unrealistic to expect web ads to work similarly to app and CTV ads. Web ads in their improved state are going to work more like an ad medium in which there is no client software (like print ads) than they will work like an ad medium in which the client software operates in the interests of a party other than the user. This is probably a good thing, because if the user is in the loop, the best way for an ad to pay for the resources and attention it consumes is to participate in a content→signal→reputation spiral that is hard to do in less user-aligned ad media.

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