July 16, 2015
How ads have changed the internet – and how users are fighting back
The television was invented in the 1920s, but it was not until 20 years later that the first advert aired on American TV (for a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies). Compare this with the internet, which was first made public in 1991. It took only three years before the first banner ad appeared online. It’s fair to say that the internet and advertising are inextricably linked. The largest and most popular search engine in the world, Google, is also the largest and most popular advertising platform in the world. But in their attempts to keep us engaged with their creations, advertisers risk damaging the internet in a way they never considered.
To some extent, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. While we accept in principle that they are a useful and necessary tool for companies to offer their products, we would rather not have to deal with them in practice. This has led to things such as banner blindness, where we train ourselves to subconsciously ignore the squares of bright colors and urgent text around a particular web page. Seeing that we were ignoring all but the content, advertisers then tried to make the advert the content itself (similar to an infomercial). Web-users are getting wise to this trick too, and are developing a similar method known as content blindness, where they switch off the second they suspect that there is a sales pitch hidden in an otherwise innocuous-looking article. Others use ad-blocking software to get rid of as many online adverts as possible, and have a far more pleasant browsing experience as a consequence.
The problem with this practice is this: excluding the price you pay to your network provider to use the bandwidth necessary to browse the internet, the vast majority of the rest of the world wide web is provided for free. And while a few people are not looking to monetize their blog or website, everyone else is wondering how they will get paid for all their work. Unless you’re selling a product or service, there is no income available, except via selling the empty spaces on your page to advertisers. By and large, this is a harmless exchange – advertisers pay for the space, website owners are remunerated for their time and effort, and the user, while they may not be thrilled by the occasional pop-up window or self-starting video, can browse in peace.
The difficulty we are now facing up to is the fact that things have gotten out of hand. Compare a page from Wikipedia, a non-profit website that does not host adverts and is funded by user contributions. A 2000 word article will load in under a second and “cost”, in terms of bandwidth, under 1MB to load. But as this study shows, a similar sized page from the New York Times takes 5 times as long to load, and while the actual content and photos of the page are visible pretty quickly, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the background that will, if you remain on the page, take 4 minutes to fully appear and cost 2MB. This too, has a name: page bloat.
Now that half the world is accessing the internet via their mobile device, page bloat is becoming a problem, not merely for roaming users, for whom 2MB of data per page can very quickly turn into a real expense and a massive drain on battery life. With thousands of users using the web not via cables or fiber but using a network connection over the air, page sizes like these slow the browsing experience down for everyone. Which is why it is not just users who find themselves turning to ad-blocker software, but increasingly, mobile phone manufacturers as well. The problem that we will find ourselves facing in the future is this: if no one can see their adverts, advertisers will stop paying sites to display them – so how will these sites keep running?