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blog: Don Marti

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World's last web advertising optimist tells all!

03 November 2017

It's getting hard to explain still taking web advertising seriously in 2017, so I had better write something down. To start with, what is web advertising exactly?

Doesn't sound good so far. Maybe I'm a fool to be the last advertising optimist on the web. (See, for example: me, running my mouth about how great advertising is, to an audience of web publishers looking to write it off and move on.)

From the point of view of users, web advertising has failed to hold up its end of the signal for attention bargain, and substituted nasty attempts at manipulation. No wonder people block it.

From the point of view of clients, web advertising has failed to meet the basic honesty standards that any third-rate print publication can. And every web advertising company is calling fraud an industry-wide problem, which is what business people say when they really don't care about fixing something.

From the point of view of publishers, web advertising has failed to show the proverbial money. It's stuck at a fraction of the value per user minute that print can pull in, which means that as print goes away, so does the ad money.

Web advertising has failed the audience, the advertisers, and the people who make ad-supported news and cultural works. Maybe I should go be a fan of something else, like securitizing bug trackers or something. Web advertising just is that annoying, creepy thing that browsers are competing to block in different, creative, ways. [T]he online ad sector transitioned from a creative-led industry to a data and algorithms-led industry, wrote venture capitalist Adam Fisher, who is understandably proud of not investing in it.

Some new companies, such as Scroll, are all about making it easier for readers to buy out of seeing advertising. Advertising is to web sites as annoying "UNREGISTERED SHAREWARE" banners and dialogs are to computer software.

On Twitter, what does the "verified" blue checkmark get you? A ticket out of Twitter's world-classedly crappy advertising.

At least search advertising is working. Bob Hoffman calls it a "much better yellow pages." But any kind of brand-building, signal-carrying advertising, where most of the money is? Not there. Ever notice how much of the evidence for "data-driven" advertising is anecdotal?

Is anyone speaking up for web advertising? Not really. Where advertising still has a policy voice, it's a bunch of cut-and-paste anti-privacy advocacy that sounds like what you might get from eighth grade Libertarians, or from people who are so bad at math they assume that it's humanly possible to read and understand Terms of Service from 70 third-party trackers on one web page. The Interactive Advertising Bureau has become the voice of schemes that are a few pages of fine print away from malware and spam. By expanding to include members whose interests oppose those of legit publishers and advertisers, and defending every creepy user privacy violation scheme that the worst members come up with, an organization that could have been a voice for pro-advertising policy positions has made itself meaningless. Right now the IAB is about as relevant to web advertising policy as the Tetraethyl Lead Industry Association is relevant to transportation policy.

Bad news all the way around, right? But some of us have been somewhere like this before.

Remember the operating systems market in the late 1990s?

In 1998, Unix was on the way out.

All the right-thinking people were going Windows NT.

Yes, even Tim O'Reilly, who built version 1.0 of his company on Unix, had apparently written it off. The spring 1998 O’Reilly catalog had all Windows books on the cover, and the Unix stuff was in back. O’Reilly and Associates was promoting the company’s first and only shrink-wrap software, a web server for Windows NT.

And why not? Bickering Unix vendors were doing short-sighted stunts such as removing the compiler from the basic version, and charging hard-to-justify prices for workstations and servers that users could beat with a properly-configured PC. Who needed it?

We know what happened shortly after that. The Unix scene Did anyone ever make a "Lumascape"-like chart of the Unix vendors? faded away and, with enough drama to make for good IT news coverage but not enough to interfere with successful efforts to fix the Year 2000 Problem, the Linux scene replaced it.

The good news is that people employed in the Unix scene were able to move, in most cases happily, to the Linux scene. (Which is big enough that it has become the OS for the "IoT", "Saas" and "Cloud" businesses, and a majority of "mobile" by units, but not of course profits) So maybe my experience living through the end of Unix is why I'm still a web advertising optimist. The economic niche for advertising hasn't gone away. Just as software had to get some important licensing and API decisions right in order to make the Linux boom happen, web advertising is so close to getting it right, too. Now that we know the basics...

  1. People have norms about data sharing. Browsers must reflect those norms or get replaced.

  2. People enjoy ad-supported news, cultural works, and services, and will tolerate ads that hold up their end of the bargain.

  3. People don't like to micromanage their attention and privacy, and expect companies they deal with to cover the costs of coming into compliance with norms.

...the next steps are coming together pretty quickly.

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