The Wild West is over in advertising technology. We’re about to see a bloodbath, in which only the truly good guys will survive. By good guys, I mean companies that actually perform a useful function for either advertisers or publishers without subjecting site visitors to a barrage of ad fraud, spam, malware, and unwanted ads.
When the first online ads appeared in 1994 the geeks had all the control, because neither the advertisers nor the publishers understood how online advertising worked. They couldn’t serve make an ad appear on a digital site without an intermediary who knew how things worked. Early online banner ads were effective, so the industry to supply them grew quickly in response to marketer demand. However, in the ensuing 20 years, the industry almost intentionally tried to obfuscate its operations, introducing more and more complex technological solutions to the simple problem of trade — buying and selling — which is almost as old as human existence. And now online ads are hated, and in extreme cases blocked entirely, with 25% of the population running some kind of ad blocker.
This threatens the traditional free content ecosystem, which has existed for hundreds of years with newspapers, magazines, and TV networks producing content for which visitors are accustomed not to pay. Without advertising, there’s no business model for free content.
But as one person said on an industry call I participated in recently, “this industry seems determined to self-destruct. We’ve been so disrespectful of users — forcing invasive, noisy, deceptive ads in front of them without regard to their experience — and until now, they’ve had no means to have any response.”
Never mind the user. The industry as also failed to respect the entity that pays the bills, the advertiser.
Now, a number of initiatives have coalesced to force the ad tech industry to change its ways.
The first is Do Not Track, a standard web browser setting that allows users to avoid sharing their browsing behavior with advertisers. Chrome, Firefox and Safari already have Do Not Track capabilities built in, but users have to choose them; they’re not the default. Many users don’t know they exist, and industry-led initiatives to prevent the widespread use of Do Not Track have had the unintended consequence of fostering the use of ad blocking software. For a couple of years now the industry failed to come up with a satisfactory compromise between the user and its own need to keep revenue flowing.
Now the Electronic Frontier Foundation has stepped in to propose a code of conduct for online publishers. The EFF calls this a compromise that allows consumers to avoid tracking and still allows publishers to get revenue from online advertising. We are in the process of getting a briefing to further understand how we as a company can help our publisher partners participate in this initiative without losing revenue. Like everything else in ad tech, this is complicated.
The second, the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), is an industry initiative that focuses on click fraud, piracy, deceptive advertising, and malvertising. Its goal is to create a clean supply chain in the industry. In its latest press release, the TAG announced a new program to block illegitimate and non-human ad traffic originating from data centers. It will use Google’s database of data center IP addresses and enhance it based upon broader industry intelligence. Other companies joining this phase of the project include Dstillery, Facebook, MediaMath, Quantcast, Rubicon Project, The Trade Desk, TubeMogul, and Yahoo.
Next, Ad Block Plus, one of the largest distributors of ad blocking software, has issued an acceptable ads manifesto which explains its criteria for acceptable ads and how to apply for whitelisting. Since it is focused on static ads and most ads today are video, this is going to be interesting. It’s even more interesting as more and more advertising falls under the category of “native.”
And last, Yahoo’s recent malware attack has forced the industry to deprecate the use of Adobe Flash to deliver ads. Flash seems to be one of the riskiest content frameworks for delivering ads.