TANSTAAFL. Robert A. Heinlein, one of my favorite sci-fi writers, and Milton Friedman, one of my favorite economists, made this concept famous decades ago. It stands, of course, for There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. That’s as true today as it was back then.
Whether you’re talking about “free” government handouts or “free” Internet content, somebody has to pay for it. In the case of the latter, that somebody is the advertisers who make it possible for sites to operate without going broke. Advertising is a fact of life on most websites today, but not all advertising is created equal – and on many sites, the ads have gotten completely out of hand. It’s no longer just annoying; it’s rendering those sites completely unusable, which is bound to eventually have the opposite of the intended effect. In this article, I want to take a look at the evolution of webvertising, the types of ads that are turning potential customers off, and how much is too much.
Prior to the 1990s, there was very little advertising on the Internet (yes, I’m ancient enough to remember). Of course, prior to the 1990s, very few people were online or even knew what the Internet was. In fact, in its early days, commercial use of the Internet was prohibited by law. Those restrictions were a little vague, though, and were gradually removed and completely gone by 1995. Meanwhile, the first Internet Service Providers appeared in the late 1980s, but those were the days when online access via CompuServe or Prodigy cost $25 an hour, so cyberspace was inhabited primarily by those working in government and academia and a few geeks who could scrape together the money.
Then a perfect storm of circumstances in the mid-90s – which included a good economy that resulted in increased ownership of home PCs, falling prices for access caused by more competition among ISPs (culminating in unlimited plans) and the development web browsers and search engines that made finding information on the Internet much easier – created a boom. Suddenly everybody who was anybody was “going online.” Gradually even the technophobic were dragged kicking and screaming into the cyber world, required to do so by employers or pressured into it by friends and relatives for whom it was the preferred means of communication.
As more and more sophisticated content became available on the ‘Net, especially when provided by for-profit businesses, it was inevitable that a way had to be found to monetize the media. There are basically two choices for making money from informational or entertaining content, whether it’s digital, print, or broadcast: You can charge the users fees (either per-use or as a monthly or yearly subscription) or you can sell advertising – or if you’re a cable company, you can do both.
Attempts to fund content the first way, with a few exceptions, didn’t go over very well. Internet users felt that they were already paying for access (i.e., their ISP charges) and were, for the most part, resistant to paying additional fees to the content providers. This would be like paying the cable company for the use of its lines and then having to also pay ABC, NBC, CBS, HBO, ESPN etc. for viewing their programs over that line. Even though you actually are doing that, it’s built into your cable bill so you don’t realize it. Because of the huge number and the scattered nature of web sites, that’s not feasible for online content.
The other problem with pay-for-content is that there is such a plethora of free content on the web that a site that charges for access appears to be “greedy” so unless it has very unique content that you can’t find elsewhere, most people won’t buy it. Again, there are exceptions such as the Wall Street Journal and some other news sites that were well established print newspapers that people were used to paying for, and a few sites such as Classmates.com, dating sites, porn sites and professional sites aimed at doctors, lawyers, etc., but most of the web is still “free.”
Except it’s not. Instead of paying money for access to most commercial sites, you have to tolerate advertising. In fact, many for-pay sites accept ads as well, but they usually keep them under control better than “free” sites so they won’t lose customers. On those “free” sites, though, the nature of ads can vary widely, from classy and unobtrusive to obnoxious and invasive.
Online advertising is big business. Revenues were close to $50 billion in 2014, and it’s growing rapidly. How rapidly? Here’s a startling statistic: Google alone accounted for almost $52 billion in ad revenue in 2015 – and the company has only around 31 percent of the market. Digital advertising, then, isn’t going away anytime soon – and most of us don’t really want it to, if that would mean having to pay extra every time we want to read something on a website. But does it really have to be so in-your-face?
I don’t mind ads that sit quietly at the side of the page. I sometimes even click on them, if they’re selling things in which I’m interested (and with today’s targeted advertising based on browsing history, they frequently are). I can even tolerate the ones that flash on and off or revolve or jump up and down to get my attention – as long as they don’t obscure the actual content I’m trying to read.
What I hate are the ones that rudely step (or dance) in front of the copy and sit there, covering it up and defying you to click that X to close them. Even worse are the ones that won’t let you close them until they’re finished displaying what they want to show you. There is no way in the world that I would ever, ever buy something based on them, and if I were on the fence about a product or service, such an ad could (and has) cause(d) me to decide against it.
As annoying as the above might be, eventually you do get to read what you came for. My biggest gripe is reserved for the increasing number of sites that are rendered totally useless by their advertising. The worst offenders seem to be those sites that display all of their info in slideshow format. Every sentence or paragraph is on a new slide, i.e. a new page, and each new page has to load dozens of ads before you can go on to the next. Often all these ads loading at once will crash the browser. And if they don’t, as new ads load, the other contents of the page jump around to accommodate them as they load. Which means you can click on what you think is one link but by the time your click is complete, something else has moved into that spot and you’re taken to a whole different page you didn’t want.
I work primarily on an i7 system with 32 GB of RAM and connect through an 85/85 FiOS link. I can’t imagine the problems this ad flooding must cause for those unfortunate folks who are still stuck with dialup or low-end cable connections. When I encounter a site like this, I no longer mess around trying to navigate my way through the muddle of advertising. I just leave. The site owners and their advertisers are alienating their users (and potential customers) with these unrelenting inundation of advertising.
What’s the solution? Webvertising isn’t going away anytime soon, but the only way to convince site owners and the advertisers themselves that the “slap you in the face, knock you to the ground and jump up and down on your chest” types of ads are doing them more harm than good is to show them. Some think just not buying is enough, but it’s not. Unless and until the click-through rates on these kinds of sites falls off precipitously, they’re unlikely to get the message. If a site inundates you with these types of ads, don’t go there again, and tell all your friends not to click those links. Hit them where it hurts: in their “pageview” numbers. Maybe then we can get back a usable, functioning web experience – without having to shell out more money for it.