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Can the Ad-Supported Web Be Saved?

infolinks, October 16, 2012

Advertising is what keeps the Web free, and no one is more painfully aware of this than the niche publisher. Publishers and bloggers have overhead and bills to pay, so the majority run advertising on their sites to keep them afloat. Unfortunately, most will sacrifice good user experience in favor of their bottom line, and will simply run as many ads as they can in the space allocated by their WordPress or Blogger Templates. Larger, more established publishers will run banners or other display types in the predictable top-of-the-page and right-rail spots.

While I applaud their industriousness and efforts to monetize their passions, I also must wonder whether they realize that they are hastening the death of online display advertising by their actions.

Does that sound dramatic? Sure, but it’s true.

The Web was practically built around display advertising — in particular, the banner ad. It’s the foundation for the free Internet we enjoy today. Like other media channels before ours, we created a business model that was largely ad-supported, and the banner was our first brick.

Publishers large and small rely on this model. Content sites without pay walls that do not sell products or premium content rely heavily on ad revenue. As a result, they will often place as many ads as they can on each page without regard for design or relevance. I’ve been to many sites that tile 12 ads in a 6×2 column along the right-hand side of the page. These were often bloggers or smaller niche publishers who house fantastic content on their pages. I’m sure you have seen plenty of other sites similarly loaded down with ads — even major portals — displaying multiple ads for belly flatteners, reduced-rate car insurance and other ubiquitous direct-response advertisers. Have you ever clicked on any of these? Neither have I.

That’s the crux of the problem: We don’t even see ads anymore. They’ve become a big blur on the page — something we gloss over as we’re looking for the content we were hoping to consume. They’re not even noticeable enough to consider annoying. Which begs the question: Can advertisers really justify spending ever-growing budgets on ads we don’t even notice?

What’s equally alarming is that the publishers can’t be benefitting from this either. If we’re not really seeing the ads, we’re not clicking on them. So if publishers are being paid on a PPC basis, they’re not making any money in this scenario. Worse still, the clutter of ads on the niche publishers page downgrades their perceived value, so instead of looking like a great niche publisher, they appear to be a lower-quality site — the type with which better brands would not want to be associated.

What we have here is a lose-lose situation. And it’s being replicated billions of times on millions of sites across the Web. The model is broken.

It’s been 17 years since we created the ad-supported Web, and our foundation is beginning to crumble. Ad tonnage is beginning to kill the industry. While new attention is being paid to viewability and brand safety, it’s simply not enough. We have to rethink advertising in general. The online advertising industry must be able to support publishers with new ad formats that will engage consumers, and consequently keep funds flowing for publishers, while delivering results for advertisers.

The industry needs to commit itself to solutions that break the box of standard units, and do so at scale. It’s a tall order, but there’s enough innovation out there today to make it happen. For the sake of the industry, I will remain optimistic.

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