There is a complex, vicious circle driving advertising to ever-more annoying extremes, and driving people to block ads. The popups of the early 2000’s have been replaced by interstitials, prerolls, and noisy animations. If there’s innovation in the ad industry it’s in inventing ever-more distracting forms of web advertising.
It’s tempting to simply blame aggressive advertisers, but the reality is that they’re reacting to a new trend in how people find and consume content. Sensationalist headlines spread virally through social networks, driving hordes of visitors to websites; visitors who feel no loyalty to a website they will probably never visit again. Aggressive advertising simply maximizes the revenue from this new type of visitor.
For our own good we need to understand and break this cycle of Junk Content chasing Junk Traffic targeted by Junk Advertising.
Content Discovery: Social Replaces Search
Before Twitter and Facebook came along website traffic was driven by search engines, or people visiting their bookmarks over 11AM coffee. Today 40% of Internet users aged between 18 and 34 prefer to use social networks rather than search engines when seeking out content online. With search losing it’s power, the task of attracting users browsing headlines and tweets on social media becomes that much more vital to publishers.
Today 40% of Internet users aged between 18 and 34 prefer to use social networks rather than search engines when seeking out content online.Tweet
Content Creation: Junk Replaces Quality
Once a website decides to focus on attracting social traffic, it must also turn from long-form content to sensationalist short-form linkbait to drive this traffic. Over time this is a race to the bottom as websites seek to out-sensationalize each other. The power of sensational journalism is only getting worse, as evident to anyone who has ever read a ridiculous headline from the The Daily Mail, now the biggest news site in the world.
This has become such a big problem that both Google and Facebook recently adapted their ranking algorithms to demote the quickly shared but immediately forgettable “listicles” and cat memes that have infested search results and news feeds.
Monetization: Zero Respect For Visitors
In the world of social content discovery visitors are transient instead of recurring. They tend to be once-off users browsing their social media feed at lunch rather than the die-hard, loyalty-based fans of the early internet. Websites that don’t expect their readers to return have little incentive to respect them. When faced with a single 10-second opportunity to make money from a visitor many choose to plaster their pages with distracting ads that are more likely to garner a click.
User Response: Block Ads
The response from many visitors is to block ads using a browser extension. Adblocking solves a problem for them: ads that make it hard to enjoy content no longer appear on their screens.
Most publishers and advertisers do not yet realize that adblocking is now mainstream. They still remember a time when 60% of people used Internet Explorer and the installation of a browser extension was extremely challenging. Every year since its launch, Chrome has stolen away IE’s market share, for the first time putting adblock in the hands of non-technical users. This technology shift combined with the growth in junk ads are major factors in the 43% annual growth of adblocking.
The Vicious Circle Revealed
Let’s recap the various turns of the vicious circle:
- Websites need traffic to survive
- This traffic is coming from social platforms
- The most highly shared content is sensational and angers or amuses. This viral traffic is maximized with a high-volume low-quality content strategy
- Web traffic is now full of once-off visitors, so websites cram their pages with intrusive advertising
- People install adblock in frustration
- Websites respond with even more aggressive advertising and cheaper content
- More people install adblock
- And so on
Clearly, this issue goes deeper than overly aggressive advertisers. Annoying ads and sensationalist web publishing are locked in a deathly embrace, plummeting towards an abyss of digital landfill: junk content chasing junk traffic monetized with junk advertising.
In the world of Social content discovery, visitors are transient instead of recurring.Tweet
Let’s Break the Circle
Right now the biggest losers are publishers of quality content. Not only are they struggling to compete for traffic with their sensationalist colleagues, they can also consider themselves unfairly treated by adblock users. Adblocking plugins block all ads by default, meaning a website that runs respectful advertising suffers equally to the websites that make adblock popular.
A lone publisher may try to treat its visitors with respect, and focus on building a loyal following through high-quality content. However, unless it has a strong enough brand to launch a subscription plan (like the NYTimes), it must continue to rely on advertising for survival. Breaking this vicious circle needs collaborative action from publishers that want to do better.
Our goal at PageFair is to help web publishers and frustrated users find a fair middle ground. We’re calling on publishers who have had success in breaking this cycle to share their stories with us. If you’re interested in measuring your own adblock rate, running appeals or sharing your strategies with our audience, please let us know.