Enriching, or just engaging? – Why advertising destroys your web.

Advertising is destroying the web, some say it is already destroyed. Most people who work in the tech industry know this, but only because we get to see the web evolve. For everyone else, it’s hard to get any visibility into what’s going on, so I’ll try to explain it.

Every time you visit a web page, absolutely any page, there’s an opportunity to make money. That’s because when you’re looking at a screen, you could also be looking at an advert. Advertisers will pay money to have their ad on your screen at that moment.

The ad-tech industry is complex, but most of that complexity is internal to the industry. Really, there’s just the advertiser, the publisher, and the reader. The publisher creates interesting stuff, and we read it. Advertisers who want to reach people like us will pay publishers to get their message in front of our eyes.

On the web, there are billions of people with a web browser, and every page you view is opportunity to make a tiny amount of money. These tiny amounts add up. An advertiser somewhere will be willing to pay some tiny sum for even a slim chance of profit.

If you think email spam is bad, then realise that spam represents the lower bound of internet advertising, and the worst web advertising is little better than email spam.

Advertisers demand places to show their ads, and internet publishers need to produce content to satisfy that demand. In principle, good content attracts many interested readers (page-views), and therefore lots of advertising revenue.

In practice however, publishers have realised that good content is not really necessary, and that more money can be made from ‘seemingly’ good content or ‘otherwise tempting’ content. In short, it’s cheaper to buy or copy existing content, and it’s enough to just write an effective headline. They get paid as you look at their page, there’s little value in your opinion of what they publish.

In other words, publishers profit more from syndicated content and click-bait than they do from creating original, informed, and objective writing.

noun: clickbait – content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

Oxford University Press

Historically, the model used in magazines had a targeted advertising component. Magazines would be sold at a cover price, and further revenue would come from advertising. The magazine articles would have to cater to our interests, or we’d simply stop buying the magazine. There was a strong incentive to not mess with readers, though ‘adutorial content’ (adverts disguised as articles) was rife in the more mainstream publications.

Today, there are comparatively vast numbers of online publishers, all competing to get you to look at their pages, because as well as traditional publishers, there are now also bloggers and social media ‘influencers’. There are even sites that make no effort to conceal their motives, and produce nothing but click-bait headlines, carefully calculated to result in your click, that lead nowhere substantial. In fact many established publishers also do exactly this.

This is unavoidable where the goal is to make money in an environment with no enforced rules, where customer loyalty no longer exists, and where tiny payments accumulate simply by getting you to look at something. Inevitably, sites offer as little as they can get away with, while still getting you to click their links.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of news articles take a few examples of something outrageous, but never say anything about how widespread the practice is.

bleah1000 observing examples of sensational click-bait (one of its many forms).

So, who controls what gets in front of your eyes? It’s whoever controls your starting point on the web. When you launch a web browser, what’s the first thing you see? When you open your phone, what notifications are waiting for you? Who is asking you to install their app ‘for a better experience’? What do you see in these apps?

The web has changed from an enriching experience to a frantic, exploitative clamour for your eyeballs on some advertiser’s copy.

As an aside, you can improve your experience to some extent by using either Firefox + uBlock Origin, or Brave (which is Google Chrome with ad-block built in). The industry is already gunning for these products, because they conflict with commercial greed. However, for the time being they’re available to use and they’re effective.

A/B Testing and Pursuit of ‘Engagement’

Here’s how to exploit people’s precious time and attention. Show a million people variation A, and another million people variation B. Which variation won – which got the highest ‘engagement’? Vary the best one slightly and repeat. Forever!

That’s how to hone in on what works best with your audience – at any scale, at any level of detail – it’s the kind of thing that traditional market researchers drool over – it’s totally beyond their wildest dreams.

I used the word ‘engagement’, yet the web should really be bringing you ‘enrichment’. Engagement is how the ad-tech industry measures performance – in other words, how long did you spend looking at their stuff.

An ‘enriching’ experience really doesn’t figure in their reasoning about any of this. Only engagement counts. There may be co-incidental overlap – an enlightening bit of comedy, or some well-explained science might leave you enriched in some small way, but these discoveries happen in spite of the system rather than because of it.

The very notion of ‘engagement’ as a measure is intimately tied to the ideas around ‘tracking’. You have a unique identity, such as email, your Facebook/Insta/TikTok/whatever name, your phone number. You also have many more unique identifiers that you will probably be oblivious to, such as your browser’s ‘fingerprint’, tracking cookies, and a whole slew of more technical stuff.

These unique identifiers allow the industry to measure your engagement, and without them it’s much harder to exploit your attention.

The next time you pick up your phone, or tablet, or laptop, ask yourself if the experience is ‘enriching’, or just ‘engaging’, and take a moment to consider just putting the device down.

2 Replies to “Enriching, or just engaging? – Why advertising destroys your web.”

  1. Great post. How can we proactively change the way things work now and get the internet back to enriching?

    Can we leverage technology to find worthwhile discussion and content and then only display those results? A search engine that is not driven by profit or customer data mining.

    1. I don’t quite know how to bring enrichment back. Raising awareness seems to me an important step, because we need ideas and co-operation from lots of people. Even finding people who share this view, and forming a group for collective efforts would be a huge step. At the moment, there are disparate efforts approaching the problem from their own point of view.

      A search engine needs good content to index, so I think curation is important – conceptually, a million people sharing their bookmarks would be a good start, but there are good sources of pre-curated links. We’d also need classification rules, heuristics that could be used to categorise page content. For example, ad-blocker scores are a great way to rank pages, spam/malware detectors can be leveraged to prune nonsense. These are the ‘low hanging fruit’ that would yield good results, but there are ways (e.g. NLP) to hone the long-tail.

      I have a couple of posts here on my own efforts (Commerce Filtered Search) that proved to me that a commerce-free search engine is entirely possible. With a couple of months effort I produced something that was kind of interesting. Promising, more than useful, but enough to suggest that with combined efforts, a lot more could be achieved.

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