On ad supported websites from a developer’s perspective
I’ve worked at media companies for over three years. Watching the recent discussions about ad-blockers, advertiser’s impinging on reader’s rights, and the growth of content distribution networks (read: Facebook, Apple News, RSS readers), I want to share how it feels to be a web developer.
Websites are complicated, but with thorough planning, complexities can be managed. Media companies often operate on a editorial calendar, which forces a perpetually reactionary state of building. In other words, developers are caught in a whirlwind of reactions: to urgent ad campaigns, soon-to-be published articles or published pieces requiring new features. Even developers with the best intentions, who know best practices of building optimized sites, are constantly under-fire. Business needs and the developer’s desire to keep a fast and clean website become inversely related.
First, working in a media company as a web developer is a lot more complicated than it looks. The process starts with a content producer’s desire to make high quality content for a loyal audience. The website is used to gather stories, edit, and publish. Developers spend time optimizing the website’s content for discovery (read: validate HTML, SEO and social sharing). Writers spend time researching stories and write on captivating topics. And editors and producers spend time preparing and shaping stories for their overall audience. These parts keep the editorial machine moving.
For established brands, companies prepare direct-sales plans, during which publishers create ad inventory. Ads are sold on the tune of unit-per-thousand. This means a thousand impressions of the advertisement are sold at a single price. For example, $15 per thousand impressions. In most cases, the advertisement inventory is sold based on a contractual agreement between the advertiser and the publisher. The agreements are based on common requirements from organizations like the IAB, but can also include specific requirements, per-advertiser. As a result, inventory pricing and qualifications can vary.
Requirements around inventory can vary greatly. Definitions have only been getting more stringent in the past years. Requirements around viewability, conversion, and targeting are important for advertisers. Billable impressions require a rendered ad to be have at least 50% of the creative in-view to the user for at least 1 second. Conversion and targeting is based around certain agreed clicks on the ad or specific types of users. In regards to demographics, advertisers can specify contracts to require traffic to be domestically based, targeted by age, or catered to user interests.
Publishers are responsible for providing the space on their webpage to render the ads. These predetermined places on the webpage are reserved for ads and packaged as available inventory. The actual placement for these ads are agreed upon based on interests from the editorial designers, as well as the business team. The editorial influence seeks to protect the diginity of the site’s content. The business team considers the various parameters that determine a valid ad impression, and seek to reduce the wasted page-view opportunities.
The techniques around tracking user activity have entirely changed in recent years. Media companies employ countless individuals responsible for understanding on-site behavior. Oftentimes, using 3rd party tracking services, such as Google Analytics or Omniture, publishers track the top-level site metrics around traffic activity. The basic metrics to watch are unique viewers, number of page views, and referrer traffic. Advanced software is implemented to gain further insights to help editorial parties understand their progress in order to grow their audience.
The collected data is used to target company specific performance indicators, often driven by business needs. The larger the organization, the more tools are used to infer insights from the existing site traffic. The more 3rd party tools a business group can implement on the website, the easier their job becomes. Unfortunately, the methods for implementing these tools are not always ideal.
Traditionally, the addition of 3rd party tools is facilitated and monitored by the web developers. With new tools, such as Tag Managers, 3rd party tools can be added in the form of scripts, without the notice of developers. In the immediate, this solves a problem for the marketing and business group, who need to gather data on a tight turnaround. For the developers, the practice of haphazardly adding scripts can counteract the attempts to improve the website’s performance. Because the number of people who can add scripts to the site is uncoordinated, this can lead to unnecessary overlapping functionality.
In the worst cases, the publishers who create partnerships with brands for ad inventory sales are inundated with unnecessary bloat. Each advertisement on a webpage comes with its unique set of creative assets and tracking files. While a publisher may have its own set of site traffic tools, each advertisement may also contain their own.
The combination of 3rd party tools, business intelligence tracking, advertisements, and advertisement specific 3rd party tracking tools create a path of unmanageable complexity.
Given these circumstances, there isn't a clear way forward. Simplifying the website’s permitted scripts or restricting the tooling used by the website isn't always an option. The growth of an organization often ties directly into the increase in unnecessary scripts and stake holders
No wonder content distributors are gaining traction. Content producers will never be entirely out of business, but the profit margins continue to thin. The distribution channels that can leverage content feeds, such as RSS or Facebook, can create frameworks that control the entire tracking, ad serving, content loading, and user platform.
I imagine in coming years, media companies will re-approach the importance of highly performant websites. The difficulties in managing the on going complexity are solved when engineering influences are prioritized in business level discussions. I’m excited to see how tech teams reshape the digital media landscape. There’s a lot of interesting stuff ahead.