I disagree when people say ads are annoying and “get in their way”. I dislike it that we are looking for ways to circumvent ads and consume content alone. Ads are annoying. And they are everywhere. You cannot read a blog post, watch a video or listen to music without being slapped in the face by an ad. Any consumption of quality content is accompanied by a proportionate amount of advertisements.
However, ads by themselves aren’t as bad as we tend to think. They help sustain a lot of these services and do some heavy lifting for us. This article is about why you should allow ads to exist and how it is part of the system. It is also about why using a plugin like readability or ad block plus is not in the best interests of the web ecosystem.
Creating software costs money
Even if you ignore the amount of expertise and person-hours put into the making of an app, it cost money to maintain it. They need cloud servers, backups, databases, disk space, hosting providers, domain names and a whole lot more. Someone has to bear these expenses. And if you get to use it for free, who will pay?
Ads run the internet
Take Gmail for example. Using gmail for free is a huge privilege. One of the best companies in the world has created a high quality email application that you get to use for free. I would gladly trade in a portion of my screen space, and tolerate a minor inconvenience in return for using gmail…for free.
We don’t realize how big a deal this is. Imagine if you had to pay for email or dropbox and there are no free plans. I doubt if we would be exposed to as many apps or learn so much, had content not been free.
The internet is not any different from the various ads we see on television, billboards and other media. There are so many ads in radio, for example, but we have trained our brains to tune that out. We are used to circumventing the ad and consuming the content alone.
If you run an event, what’s one of the biggest things on your list? Sponsorship. Why? Because you want a nice venue, great speakers (who need to be well taken care of), good food. All of this costs money. Companies enable events like these. They pay you money so you can run your event that will benefit a lot of people. In exchange for what? A logo here and a mention there? If we are happy to take that advertising in the offline world, because it benefits us, we should be viewing ads online in the same light.
This is a tried and tested business model. A lot of businesses offer free services in exchange for ad placements. If you want an ad free experience, you pay for the “pro” version. Fair and square. If you don’t like ads, pay them so they can run their businesses successfully.
The probability of you clicking an internet ad is lesser than that of you surviving a plane crash.
Brad Frost jokingly mentions this random internet fact in his talk Death to bullshit. While this statement may not be statistically accurate, the probability of us clicking an ad is very low.
Yet, there are entire businesses based off of this model. They allow me to use their amazing software in exchange for a little bit of my screen space, which I can totally ignore. And they are okay with the abysmal probability of my clicking it. They really just want the comfort of having their ad there, even if it means very little to them. Right?
A lot of people produce quality content through their blogs or podcasts. While they reap some amount of reputation and marketing benefit out of this, its really intangible. They take hours out of their lives to experiment with cool technology, write posts, format it, upload code samples, explain, teach and share it with us. We get to learn so much for free. Can we not, in return, provide these authors the possibility of making money through that content?
I learn a lot from dev blogs and have immense respect for a lot of these authors. I wouldn’t voluntarily tip an author for every great blog post he wrote. But if my visiting his site or clicking on an ad that genuinely caught my attention is going to benefit the author, how can we have a problem with that? In fact, I strongly feel that every great blog article should be rewarded. The learning I gain from their writing far exceeds a trivial click that can help them sustain their channel. Even if some of this advertising was “in the way”.
These ads are not boring or dull. They are relevant. They are based on your browsing history. It does get annoying if you look up some search term by mistake and you start getting ads for tennis balls for the next week. But these are machines trying to learn and behave intelligently. They are building systems around this and it takes time to build intelligence. Once they do, these ads will be less boring and more interesting.
Ads within your content
When everyone starts blocking ads, the creative minds behind ads will come up with better ideas. They will start promoting ads within content. That is the worst thing that can happen to us!
You will start having actors promote products within the movie. Or text links on blogs to products that aren’t really what they seem. We will be forcing them to promote sponsors without a clear demarcation of content vs promotion.
I prefer to keep my content and advertising separate. And I think that is a better way of consumption than constantly digressing within the context of reading or watching a movie.
Doing it right
I am not saying advertising is being done right today. They have a lot of growing up to do. But, before you start hating these ads for their existence, understand that you might not be able to access facebook, had it not been for ads. Or Google, for that matter.
Instead of building tools to avoid these ads, we need to build interfaces that allows content and advertisements to coexist, without intruding each other.
There are right ways of showing ads. Then there are the absolutely wrong, tricky and cunning ways of showing ads.
1. Fake links
When you click on download, it downloads an “installer” instead of the software you requested. Or, you are met with ten different buttons all saying download and the actual link is buried inside this maze.
2. Signal to Noise Ratio
Actual content is 1/10th of the screen and there are ads everywhere else
3. Population explosion
If having one ad on the page doesn’t work, lets add ten ads. This mentality of certain publishers is the biggest problem facing the web today. This is the reason you stop using and they start losing.
These are just some of the wrong ways to do ads. Essentially, anything that comes in the way of your consuming content and breaks your experience is a bad way to do ads.
This doesn’t mean ads themselves are bad. Publishers play a major role in how ads are perceived. There are some services that do it right.
Facebook has ads. Imgur has ads. Gmail has ads. There are a lot of applications out there that require ads for their survival and manage to make them completely unintrusive.
Appreciate it when ads are done right
We should all feel grateful that these developers care enough about our experiences. Your using the application provides them no tangible benefit when compared to the sponsor who is paying them actual money. Yet a majority of these applications focus more on the user than promoting sponsors. I believe we have failed to explicitly appreciate when ads are done right. It does reflect in our engagement with the application, which is a reward in itself for the producer. Still, I feel that we need to be more vocal in appreciating publishers when they care deeply for user experiences.
Unless they make their ads unintrusive, people aren’t going to flock to these applications. However, once they have an unsustainable amount of traffic and not enough infrastructure to maintain that, how will they deal with additional costs of supporting users? It all eventually boils down to ads. Its only a matter of doing it right and respecting the user.
Instead of viewing ads as something that we need to block as a whole or not care about completely, we as designers and developers of the web need to take a more careful approach towards ads. Positioning ad containers with sufficient thought that it doesn’t break the overall UX that we have built into the product. Creating responsive ad solutions that helps build commerce on the internet.
Ads themselves have a lot of growing up to do.
Responsive ads are still a huge problem. Ad regulations have standard dimensions of fixed heights and widths to display ads. These could totally break a layout when viewed through different web enabled devices. Some might require special software to run and are broken on devices that don’t have them installed.
2. Mixing it up
If I search for item X, I don’t want to see item X all over the internet. Mixing it up is nice. Basing ads purely on browsing history is stupid. Its the corporate version of playing it safe. There needs to be a better discovery mechanism. That’s something the ad engines need to build with more insight.
3. Responsible advertising
This ad greets you with a game where you have three shots. The first two shots, you’re playing a game. The third shot takes you to a link. These gamified ads are tricking us into clicking on regions on the screen.
Instead of focusing so much on tricking and teasing users into clicking ads, there needs to be a more responsible and respectful advertising system in place. When the users mature and accept ads as part of the system, ads need to respect the user in return.
Further reading / References
Sustainability of an Ad-Centric Ecosystem
The Future of Advertising: ‘Pay-Per-Gaze’ Is Just the Beginning