Internet advertising is broken for most of us

The Internet is built on ads. Everything we do and everywhere we go we see ads. Google and Facebook are built on delivering ads that are intended to be more interesting and relevant than just presenting us with random offerings.  From an advertiser’s perspective that makes good sense, because it allows them to target their most likely customers and not waste money targeting those with no interest.

Yet in spite of all of their efforts to identify our likes, dislikes, affinities, and characteristics, the ads we see provide a terrible experience, often so bad that it makes us hate the advertiser. While we may see more relevant ads, there are two issues with that:

(1) The delivery system is broken.

(2) While the ads may identify our interests, they continue to deliver those ads even after we’ve made the purchase when we are the least likely to buy.


A Broken Delivery System

Internet advertising rarely works for most of us, yet subjects us all to a constant barrage of annoyances, interruptions, and diversions from what we went on the Internet to do. Just at the most inopportune time, while reading an important article, we’re interrupted from our train of thought by a flashing ad or a popup designed to detract from or obscure what we are reading. It’s both rude and counterproductive. Do the advertisers think we’ll look kindly upon them or their products, when they purposely do this? Reading an article is like playing a video game, extinguishing the ads like space invaders coming at us.

These ads are getting more obnoxious. We’re inclined to ignore the static ads in the banner, off to the side, or interspersed on the page. So now we’re seeing ads that block part of the content, forcing us to stop reading. They require us to click on them to close, but the X to close is often obscured or off to the left instead of being on the conventional top right corner. And some sites pop up additional ads as soon as we close another. The best solution is to navigate away from the site and never return. Or if you want revenge against an advertiser, click his add a few dozen time to rack up his ad costs.

Yet, advertisers will tell us that their ads must be working because they believe they’re effective at selling their products. They are convinced of that by Facebook, Google and their advertising agencies. While their ads may attract a tiny percentage, it annoys the rest. It’s much like the robocalls promoting a car warranty or hotel contest. For most, they’re a terrible annoyance and obviously deceptive, but they too must work for a tiny percentage of people, perhaps one percent. So for the advertisers, it’s a big success with 1 out of 100 responding, because the cost of automating these calls or ads is so miniscule. Meanwhile the other 99 are annoyed, delayed, interrupted or worse.

In fact, most advertisers have no idea whether they are working. From a recent Wired article,

“It’s fair to wonder why, if programmatic advertising is such a bum deal, so many brands continue to pour money into it. The reasons are manifold and overlapping. To begin, most of the people responsible for ad spending have no idea where their ads are actually running, let alone how they’re performing, and certainly have not brushed up on the latest research papers. That’s especially true for the small and medium-size businesses that make up the bulk of Google and Facebook advertising customers. I spoke recently with the owner of a successful online audio equipment store who had recently learned, thanks to a chance encounter with an expert, that 90 percent of his programmatic ad budget was being wasted on fraudulent clicks. Most other merchants simply never find out what happens after they send an ad out into the world.”


After We Buy

I’m still seeing adds for shoes months after I bought a pair. (The underpants I clicked on two years ago finally went away last year.)  Having just bought a pair of shoes,  I’m the least likely of anyone to buy another new pair of shoes. Yet advertisers are paying Google and Facebook to reach me even after the purchase for months or even years. It makes no sense. It wastes their money and annoys us, because it reminds us how we are being tracked.


What’s the solution?

Web advertising has a fatal flaw. It tries to engage us while we are actively engaged in doing something else. We’re on the web for a purpose, either researching or reading or for entertainment. Ads are constantly interrupting us from doing what we came to do. They are fighting us and trying to divert us.

It’s easy to criticize, but what’s the solution? I thought at one time it was paying for web content. Yet even when you pay the ads are still tracking you. I subscribe to the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and San Diego Union Tribune. Yet these sites are also full of ads, typically sprinkling them into the articles or in a banner. But that’s still annoying because it means we have to do more scrolling to skip past the ads.

Ad blockers are another solution, but the many I’ve tried don’t work very well.  They don’t block all ads and prevent some sites and windows from opening. I don’t think there is a good solution. As long as 1% of the targeted users continue to click on the ads, the other 99% will continue to suffer.

One more thing. Please excuse the popup ad for my book.


by Phil Baker