Advertising is Strangling the Web

Advertising has come out on top of the internet economy. But the business model is strangling the world wide web and everything else is having a hard time breathing.

It’s a volume game that very few benefit from. Just like at the casino — only a fraction will ever see a return. The house always wins, as they say.

Never the less people voluntarily walks in to casinos getting ripped off for millions of dollars every day while clinching to that sorry little hope of a better life just around the next corner.

It’s the same with almost any media or content creators on the web. They are the slotmachines of our attention.

Everyone is fighting for our attention, but only a selected few will gain any value from it. The few being Google and Facebook and not that many others. The two tech giants took a combined 99% of over all digital advertising growth in the last part of 2016.

Those two companies in turn are the slotmachines of any media on the web trying to make money with them. If the house always wins, they are the house.

The rest of the web is in a downward spiral trying to defend a piece of the advertising pie while more and more competitors arrive to claim their part too. From news and entertainment to social. Even marketplaces. They all have more advertising for other stuff than their own.

In the heat of this fight everyone is promoting bad attention and discouraging the good kind of attention. The good attention as in deep, long lasting and self-selected — like reading a book. The bad attention as in quick, superficial and often times unwilling as we know from FOMO.

The discontent with digital advertising is nothing new, but it seems like we’ve entered another dimension. The shear volume has reached an extreme level. Advertising space has gone from restricted to being everywhere, as Columbia University professor Tim Wu puts it in his book The Attention Merchants.

Before the two giants cleared the house, advertising seemed a natural fit as the business model of the web. But just as the web has proved itself an extremely powerful force no one can control, advertising has gone the same way.

Digital ads don’t care where they are displayed. Right now more than 130 trillion(!) webpages are live and the number is steadily rising. So does the number of places ads can be displayed. And with automatic advertising as the driving force it doesn’t matter what all these websites are or who is behind them. An advert shown is all the same.

This open fight for our attention towards simple page views is turning into clickbait and continuously fast paced updates with no real information, fake news, reused photo galleries, me-too cooking recipes, mommy blogs, sports gossip and endless foras of computer generated content. To name a few classics.

Because a link is a link. In that sense the web has proven too democratic. People really don’t want this.

Very simply, this is what happens:

Anyone that wants to make money on advertising on the web will try to boost their reach to get more page views because they can’t boost prices. Then they sell impressions of ads with every page view and the more ads per page view the better. Everything is done automatically. So no one checks if the users are happy as long as the ads are shown.

And because the web grows faster than the advertising economy does, a page view will constantly decrease in value as a place for serving advertising. Which means the individual website will need to boost their reach even more to keep their share of the pie.

That’s why you see ads all over your search or social feeds and probably the reason you can’t stand the news anymore. Even The New York Times is aware of that.

The fierce fight has led even the most in-dept sites to focus more on sending you to the next page instead of making you happy on the page you actually choose to visit. Funny enough it’s opposite the strategy of Google and Facebook.

We see it the most on social media but just as well on legacy news media where consumers are no longer invited to watch. Instead, we are the ones being watched. By the attention merchants.

It’s almost as the real content has turned into serving as teasers for the advertising. The web is screaming: Skip content to play ad.

It’s the world upside down.

The media has to turn out more content not to loose their share of the advertising. And the users have to see more ads to obtain the same value from their attention. It’s a vicious circle stealing our attention and making media and other creators focus on the wrong thing.

The web needs a technically new and more nuanced economy and there are ways out there. And we, the users, must get used to pay up front in stead of counting on advertising to fuel all product development on the web.

Because just like casinos are created to rip you off, so is an unhealthy big part of the web. Right now only the house is winning.


If you feel it too, please share this piece with your network and hit ❤️. And if you have any great stories or thoughts on this subject — let us know in the comments.