Publishers: Trim the Fat and Save Your Sites

David Barton Adblocking, Uncategorized 9 Comments

We now access the Internet at an average global speed of 4.5 Mbps, according to a recent Akamai report. Compare this with the days of tweaking and cajoling already lean sites to squeeze through a dial-up connection and it would appear that web designers in 2015 have a much easier time than in the 1990s when it comes to serving content at top speed.

But websites can still seem surprisingly slow, even when accessed on a modern desktop machine connected to a fat pipe delivering them at several times the global average. Switch to a tablet or a smartphone on even 3G and you can end up thinking that web designers have given up on the old Holy Grail of fast-loading pages. Regardless of the connection we’re using, many of us have seen ads popping into existence on our tablets after a page has apparently rendered, mischievously intercepting a touch meant for a different link.

A recent study by the Monday Note of some popular news sites showed that ads could certainly play a part, but advertisers are slow to admit any blame. To make things even more confusing, many sites also include dozens (or hundreds) of trackers which – although relatively small – can add up.

But in the end, it may not matter whether publishers or advertisers are ultimately responsible. With little control over other factors, some users are already being tempted to strip out ads and regain at least the impression of speed.

Data from our 2014 Adblocking Report (PDF) shows that 8% of adblockers are motivated by performance concerns:

top-ab-install-reasons

 

The reality is that extensions such as Adblock Plus have been shown to actually slow down some websites, but there are lighter alternatives on the way, such as the upcoming adblocking capabilities of iOS9. Ultimately, users concerned with speed will find ways to remove elements which they perceive as slowing them down.

Advertisers are not yet fully aware of the threat of adblocking, so it may be premature to expect them to do anything, but publishers are already noticing the effect on their bottom line. Faced with extinction, maybe publishers and their web designers can at least do their bit to stem the tide of adblocking by turning to some old but still valid principles:

Web design needs to cater to the masses. Only rarely can a site be successful if it is aimed at the most advanced 10% of users. Thus, even though high-end users may have very fast broadband these days, web design must aim at optimal usability over more widely available speeds. Jakob Nielsen

Where publishers may see a challenge, Facebook has seen an opportunity, offering an easy way out by allowing content producers to abdicate responsibility and deliver content via the sleek siren call of Facebook Instant Articles. Facebook has done much to assuage publisher fears and get some big names on board, but join us again in a future post to find out why Instant Articles could be a poisoned chalice and a potentially devastating threat to the Open Web.

  • As someone who runs an ad network and was quoted in the Business Insider article you linked to – ad networks definitely have caused lots of issues including privacy, performance and security that’s leading to adblock usage.

    Publishers have prioritized short-term revenue over long-term UX and performance of their sites. It’s perfectly possible to make fast-loading sites tailored to each device but it’s just not what most publishers care about compared to the pressure of ads and analytics to squeeze out more dollars from the audience.

    The digital ad industry is one of the few that has no real regulations and is run by industry groups who arent very technically savvy. This leads to lots of shady networks that are full of fraud and terrible quality scam ads and even malware. Even the good networks with clean material still seem to be built by inexperienced developers who drop hundreds of javascript tags to render a single image.

    While adblock is putting pressure on the industry to finally change, it might actually do more long-term harm by forcing content into paywalls and private walled-gardens like Facebook. Losing the open web is not a good thing but what we really need is better regulation to ensure that networks can still survive but do so while putting both publishers and consumers in a better position. That’s probably the only way we’ll get out of this situation without a massive change in the web ecosystem.

    • Mark

      Whats needed is less about regulation than self restraint. Think back to the very beginning of Google ads and what made them very popular with publishers and (to begin with) not entirely unpopular with users; the ads they replaced were intrusive, deceptive, usually poorly behaved and generally very heavy on bandwidth. What ad networks are spewing out now may have evolved from that time, but they are fundamentally making much the same set of mistakes and ignoring past lessons, plus the addition of tracking which seems quite out of control.

      Regulation is unlikely to help because it will never be granular enough to stop the excesses while allowing for new developments, and calling for it is just a lazy excuse for the industry’s complete inability to get its own house in order. Users have the tools at their disposal to take control of their own browsers and privacy, so the bottom line is producing something that gives them a reason not to block. For the industry to do anything less, frankly, is little short of suicidal and leaves no wiggle room for apportioning blame.

      Maybe the answer is is fewer ad networks and better quality, because something is certainly going to give if the current situation prevails.

      • This is how free markets work and regulation is a normal method of control. Self-restraint is not going to just show up on it’s own after all this.

        It’s easy to just blame ad networks but it’s a combination of several forces. Ad networks keep producing more intrusive formats, publishers want to make more money and keep loading up on ads, and agencies/advertisers keep demanding more volume with more “engagement” at cheaper prices. It’s the entire market that’s moving this way, not just a single layer.

        I’m proud to say our network is one of the newest and best at actually caring about performance and privacy because we come from the software world rather than the ads/agency side. And while we offer a better experience for consumers and sites, we’re always disadvantaged when you can buy a video view for 10 cents from some networks with autoplay videos on mobile devices adding 20mb to your data usage for just viewing a single article. Do you expect them to just stop selling that when there’s infinite demand for it?

        This is also a global industry with lots of companies based internationally so the current defacto industry groups (which are not great to begin with) are powerless to control everything.

        You can see what happens when Wall St has no regulation; this is no different. Saying regulation is a lazy excuse means you’re ignoring the realities of the market and the flow of billions that are spent on digital media every year. If you have a better way to change things outside of just suggesting these companies restrain themselves then we’re all listening…

        • Mark

          Your last two paragraphs are at odds with each other, but actually make the point quite well. Industry groups are crap because everyone largely pursues what they perceive as their own self interest, and in any case are somewhat ‘local’ and thus incapable of keeping things under control in a global market.

          But you then make the point about lack of regulation and Wall St – yes, the wheels come off without it, but regulation generally also works relatively locally and so can’t really address the widespread problems coming from a global market any better than industry self regulation.

          The EU is a little different in that it covers so many countries, but even there local interpretations vary of the rules there are, and they are very unlikely at any point in the near future to extend beyond attempting to deal with privacy (which they currently try, but generally only with large scale networks like google) and the basics of dishonest ads run by large companies.

          Regulation does not currently even begin to deal with the issues that are responsible for the industry screwing itself, nor are they likely to at any point in the near future. The nitty gritty of ad ratio on a page, bandwidth demands and intrusive, sneaky behaviour are just never, ever going to be part of any regulators remit, yet these are precisely the issues that are driving users to adblockers in ever growing droves. These are the failings of the industry as a whole, built up by collective greed and inaction, that are going to eviscerate it if restraint is not shown PDQ, and as you point out, industry associations – the only way restraint is going to happen – are useless, and likely to remain so as long as so many are prepared to elbow everyone else out of the way at the trough while the going’s good, while failing even to acknowledge long term self interest.

          Publishers have a strong incentive to choose ‘better’ ad networks, as many will go down with the same ship, yet currently they don’t on the whole. Even those whose ads are less problematically presented and behaved still stuff their pages full of privacy screwing beacons, which shows they still haven’t understood at all where the real threat is coming from; ads are now just the symptom, the real disease is tracking users and logging, storing and selling their behaviour, and that absolutely will be brought down in the end, either by privacy regulators, the law, or technology in the hands of users. Although if that drives publishers to the likes of facebook, we then collectively have a bigger problem in the threat to the ‘open web’.

          Even in the highly improbable event that someone decided to have a crack at global regulation, how far down the list of ‘to dos’ do you think that would be after banking, nuclear proliferation etc? Earth will be a cold, dead world long before that comes to pass.

          The likelihood of self restraint/regulation seems a long way off when stupidity is so prevalent. From another article by this author on iOS adblocking:

          “While Google is unlikely to endanger its bottom line any further by offering in-built Android or Chrome adblocking, it’s also probable that Android users will not be content to experience an ad-filled Internet when their iOS peers surf undistracted, especially as advertising on Android devices may need to intensify once a huge chunk of the market disappears.”

          The “may need to intensify” says it all. If overloading Android users with ads isn’t a good enough idea to do now, why would it become any less barking mad just because blocking happens on iOS? As the author points out, its suicidal.

          Ultimately, I think the answer for publishers is probably micropayments, something that hasn’t even been explored yet. Expensive ‘all you can eat’ paywalls just aren’t even a starter except for a few key sites, but small, per-page payments that perhaps reflect the expected equivalent revenue from ads just might work in time, but will also force sites to be competitive on price and quality, which has to be a good thing for users. I’d expect the number of ‘mid-level’ sites to shrink dramatically.

          I suspect the only answer for the ad industry is going to be one company repeating google’s early success by coming up with a malware-free format that users can live with, and that is sufficiently profitable that its a no brainer for publishers (and has enforced ratio limits), and thus simply puts the bad networks out of business or at least forces a change in practice across the board. It’s probably the only way self restraint will come about, but its about as likely to happen as me discovering perpetual motion by lunch tomorrow. The alternative however is Armageddon for your industry.

          You are losing eyeballs on your ads at an almost exponentially increasing rate, especially among users under 25 and on the already difficult mobile platform), you’ve entirely lost me and my generation for good, and technology improvements are not largely going to work in your favour, especially post Snowden. The clock really is ticking, so what you need is action now across the board, not wishful thinking and wringing your hands, which won’t solve a thing even if it is the only available option.

          • Not sure why you’re assuming this industry is about to implode overnight but that’s just not going to happen.

            1) The ad industry is not stupid or ignorant. There are thousands of people working in hundreds of companies, many of them very smart and talented. The current situation is just how capitalist free markets work. The profit motive has driven the current course and since users aren’t really part of the transaction till the very end, the end-user experience has been the lowest in priority.

            2) Ad blockers are just a tool and while they aren’t morally right, they have given control back to users somewhat which is now pushing the industry into better considering the user.

            3) Tracking is not such a huge privacy issue as it’s made out to be. Most ad networks only know you as a random number and track some generic interest categories. My company only uses 3rd party providers who specialize in this and even they only get some demographics and some intent based on sites you visit. It’s not a big deal and can easily be opted-out.

            Most people really don’t care about privacy as their actions prove considering how much information they volunteer to Facebook and Google (who by the way run the two biggest and most profitable ad platforms exactly because of all this data). Tracking and data also end up leading to more accurate ads, which is important since the primary user complaint isn’t that ads are bad but rather that they are irrelevant to them. Removing any sort of data would mean generic ads that serve everyone less.

            4) There are lots of technical solutions to adblock and given time and money, they can easily be scaled up to millions of sites. The industry has tools to fight back for a long time if that’s what it chooses to do. Hopefully something else will happen but we’re not completely out of options.

            5) The only micropayment solution that’s worked is ads. There have been countless attempts at making direct transactions work but it’s an incredibly hard problem that requires massive scale and cooperation, while still being at risk of net neutrality, monopoly and privacy issues. Users just don’t want to think about transactions and they don’t want to pay for content (nor do they even realize what it costs).

            Passive options like ads always have the most success while also keeping the web open and big. We don’t need more silos and closed central sources of content which become antithesis to the foundation of the internet. I’m currently working on a private project to research micropayments further but it would need the reach of Google or a major ISP so you can see how there would be issues rolling something out.

            Another issue is that even if people say they want a micropayment solution, why use that when adblockers are free? Same reason why everything is easily accessible on-demand today but privacy still remains popular in the US: it’s hard to compete with free.

            6) Also in regards to tracking, micropayments would mean credit card or other payment information with a strong ID attached, meaning names, addresses, date of birth, credit history, purchase history, etc. Browsing via ads is far more anonymous compared to micropayments or any direct transaction system, unless you trust that central payment holder to not share data (which won’t happen).

            There are large companies that aggregate your offline purchase history and combine it with online CRMs to get most of that ability today, if an advertiser wants it. That’s what you should be worried about, not some tracking scripts that just see what sites you’ve visited and classify you as a travel enthusiast because you went to hotels.com. That’s not really a big deal unless you really hate hotel ads.

            7) There already is regulation around certain advertisers, industries, content and even disclosure principles. It’s very effective. Wall St is anything but local, it’s a global market accessed from everywhere. It’s not like the action literally happens on Wall St. It’s the same for digital ads: by focusing on where the dollars enter and exit and with control over the large agencies that spend most of the money, there’s plenty of potential for smart regulation. Industry groups are powerless, but not the law, which can work at a federal level via the FTC and other bodies. There is enough precedent, it just needs to be built upon and catch up to where the industry is today.

            8) The younger generation is not “lost”. In fact they spend more time interacting with ads and branded content than any other age group. All time internet use (across every device) is way up. Video consumption is up. And with this comes billions of impressions, clicks and videos viewed each day. You can easily look at Youtube, Facebook, Snapchat and Buzzfeed numbers to get a sense of just how much exposure there is. Even the crappy “recommended links” widgets with terrible content get millions of clicks daily and growing so the interaction is there. Advertising has not just stopped working, it’s bigger than ever and working better than ever.

            9) Finally, that company you’re talking about is us. We already run malware-free ads that are fast, simple and non-intrusive while paying publishers well. That’s our speciality. But like I said before, there are billions of dollars invested in all of the other intrusive formats and cheap pricing so unfortunately we have to try 100x harder to get sales vs the CPC widgets and autoplay video providers. While I wish the market just suddenly realizes we’re so much better, nobody else is going out of business. Advertisers still want engagement and publishers still want revenue.

            I’ve been in this industry for a long time and am one of the few willing to have a honest conversation while also actively looking for better alternatives and now running a company trying to make it happen. I’ve heard the same thoughts a thousand times and I get the situation on both sides.

            What I can definitely say is that “armageddon” is not about to happen anytime soon and that kind of thinking isn’t helpful, nor is expecting everything will improve through self-restraint. What we need are better ads, content and experiences and I’ve laid out the best option for that in the near-term. If you or anyone else has real actionable suggestions on how to improve the ecosystem then, again, we’re all listening…

    • qka

      I’m blocking your ad network.

      Boo-freakin’-hoo.

      • Sure. Nobody’s crying over here.

        Maybe you can read the longer thread there and get some more insights if you’re actually interested.

  • qka

    We consumers have an easier way of dealing with slow loading sites – we stop visiting them.

  • Mobileappdevelopment

    According to a leading mobile analytics firm, mobile app usage continued to see significant growth year on year, with overall mobile app usage up by 72.5%. Top mobile app categories including shopping, utilities & productivity and messaging also saw more than 300% growth. With 51% of time spent on mobile devices in comparison to 42% on desktops / laptops by end users in United States, global companies are partnering top app development companies to develop mobile application, which keeps them ahead of curve.