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Mossberg: The Real Trouble With Web Ads

The system is broken and needs real reform.

The Verge

Welcome to Mossberg, a new weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.

Lately, there’s been an uproar over Web advertising. Ever since Apple made ad blocking on the mobile Web much easier a couple of weeks ago in its latest version of iOS, there has been a deluge of commentary about online ads, pros and cons. Some have pointed out that, if widely adopted, this blocking could choke off the lifeline of small publishers and accelerate the move from the mobile Web to apps. Some have noted that Apple’s move is really a strike at its archrival Google, which is the biggest player in Web ads.

Still others have taken the view that blocking is what the ad industry has earned, by loading down webpages with ugly, annoying ads that sometimes block content and add huge amounts of unwanted code that slows down the loading of webpages, especially on smartphones.

I agree with all of this, but I think there’s another reason users might want an easy way to expunge browser ads: They represent both an unwanted intrusion and a broken promise. They are, in effect, a form of spyware, scooping up information about what people do online without their knowledge and permission, supposedly in return for useful, personalized ads.

The trouble is twofold: Users can’t easily opt out of the spying and tracking that goes along with these ads, even if they don’t mind ads themselves. And the promised personalization of ads is, at best, crude and often useless — except in search-results pages, which provide immediate context.

In my experience, this bargain — give us your personal information and we’ll give you really useful ads, tailored to you — has simply never materialized, going back to its earliest days on desktops. Because of this, I first reviewed and recommended a couple of early Web ad blockers all the way back in 1999.

But the answer isn’t to promote ad blockers. The ad industry is right that ads do indeed fund all that free content on the Web, and that small sites will suffer from widespread ad blocking.

The answer is for the ad industry to reform itself so people don’t turn to ad blockers. Ads need to be less intrusive, less burdensome, and smarter. Tracking needs to be more transparent and more under the user’s control. And this reform should start now, when ad blockers are still used by a small minority of users.

I’m not against ads. After all, they pay my salary and the salaries of talented content creators whose work I enjoy and appreciate. But I too rarely see Web ads that are really interesting and relevant to me. And I resent the hidden, black-box systems by which the industry collects information about me.

One example: You buy something somewhere just once, and the ad industry picks up on that and shows you ads for the exact same type of product, as if you are likely to buy more, right away. This happened to me when I only once bought boxer shorts online — and baby books as a gift for new parents I knew — once. These purchases were anomalies, but the ad industry couldn’t figure that out.

In other words, the algorithms are crude, even though the industry has tons of information about my more frequent, longer-term buying patterns and my regular browsing habits, not to mention my age, location and other salient facts.

But reform of Web ads shouldn’t stop at doing a better job of delivering one end of the bargain. The industry needs to stop scooping up your personal information without asking, or even telling you. This is nothing but a form of spyware, something I railed about in a column 10 years ago, before the iPhone and Android and the mobile Web even existed, and at a time when the means of surreptitiously collecting personal information were far simpler.

I would gladly opt into seeing ads I found useful and relevant, just as I opt into reading content I find useful and relevant. And such opt-ins would even give the industry better information about what people might want to buy on a regular basis. If opting in is a bridge too far, I would even grudgingly settle for a clear, easy, universal way to opt out of ads that don’t work for me, or which are clumsy and obtrusive. That, too, should be useful information for sophisticated, up-front advertisers and the ad buyers they employ.

But Web users in most cases can do neither, so some turn to blunt weapons like ad blockers, which do inflict collateral damage, especially on small websites. Yes, the industry has created various ways of reporting bad ads. And an organization called the Digital Advertising Alliance has a program where some advertisers agree to place little blue triangles in ads, which users can click to report bad ones or to opt out of targeted advertising on a site. But, at least in my experience, that little blue triangle doesn’t show in most ads.

A decade or more ago, this issue became hot when the desktop Web was littered with pop-up ads and people learned about the first popular ad-industry spying tool, tracking cookies. Now, the issue is hot again, because the Web — and Web ads — have migrated to mobile Web browsers. These are less powerful and offer a smaller canvas, and are thus more easily overwhelmed by heavy, invasive ads. The online ad industry will respond, but not, I predict, with the kind of sweeping reform it really needs.

One more thing: If Web ad blockers are a blunt tool I wish could be avoided, why did I praise TiVo last week for a new feature that lets you skip whole blocks of TV commercials with one click? Don’t those ads also support content creators?

Yep. But, while TV ads can’t conduct the kind of surreptitious data collection Web ads can, the commercial breaks have gotten longer and often just aren’t relevant to me. Once in awhile, I find a TV ad I consider useful, or at least enjoyable. But not often enough. That’s why people routinely fast-forward through them when they can. TiVo’s button just makes a common practice more efficient, so you don’t even get a fleeting glance at the ads, and your program resumes almost instantly. It makes watching cable feel like watching Netflix.

Whether on the Web or TV, ads need to get smarter, better and less annoying — just as websites and TV shows do. And, on the Web, wouldn’t it be better for consumers if the tracking mechanisms they use were transparent and opt-in?

If those two things happened, nobody would be arguing about ad blocking.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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