Don Marti

Ad blocking, bullshit and a point of order

(Bob Hoffman says that the B word in a post title is good for more traffic so let's try it.)

Alex Kantrowitz for Advertising Age: Publishers Watch Closely as Adoption of Ad Blocking Tech Grows.

Adblock Plus, for instance, recently surpassed 300 million installs, according to spokesman Mark Addison, who said it stood at 200 million roughly a year ago. Mozilla has seen more than 200,000 downloads of Adblock Plus nearly every day since Sept. 1. Mr. Addison attributed the extension's popularity primarily to the fact that it is now available on every browser.

Lots of stuff is "available on every browser" but sank without a splash. There must be something more going on.

No One Should Be Outed By an Ad: Marc Groman of the Network Advertising Initiative points out that

A young man or (woman) searches on his computer in the privacy of his home for information about sexual orientation or coming out as gay. Hours or days later, he receives ads for gay-related products or services while surfing on totally unrelated websites. Maybe this happens while at school, in the office or when sharing his computer with family members. Recent developments in cross-device tracking mean that ads for gay events or venues could surface not only on his home computer where he originally searched for the information, but on his work laptop or tablet. In addition, the ads could even be displayed on his parents’ computers, which could unknowingly be linked to his PC because they appear to be part of the same household.

According to Groman, "nearly 100 of the most responsible companies in online advertising today" won't do this.

But as for the remaining, less scrupulous adtech firms, the take-away is: better get your ad blocker on.

Brian Merchant on Motherboard:

72 percent of US internet users look up health-related information online. But an astonishing number of the pages we visit to learn about private health concerns—confidentially, we assume—are tracking our queries, sending the sensitive data to third party corporations, even shipping the information directly to the same brokers who monitor our credit scores.

What could possibly go wrong?

That's just a couple of targeted advertising stories from the past week. And the IAB is worried that ad blockers are a thing? That's like crapping on the sidewalk and complaining about people wearing rubber boots.

"Online advertising" is turning into a subset of "creepy scary stuff on the Internet." Advertising done right can be a way to pay for things that people want to read, but it's not working.

So why do publishers put up with this? Why not just run only first-party ads? It's a long story, but basically because other publishers do.

If websites could coordinate on targeting, proposition 1 suggests that they might want to agree to keep targeting to a minimum. However, we next show that individually, websites win by increasing the accuracy of targeting over that of their competitors, so that in the non- cooperative equilibrium, maximal targeting results.

So the gamesmanship of it all means that publishers end up in a spiral of crap.

Ad blocking isn't helping. The AdBlock Plus "acceptable ads" racket will pass ads that are superficially less annoying, but still have fundamental tracking problems. It's "acceptable" to split a long article into multiple annoying pages to put ads at top and bottom, but not to put ads within the flow of a modern long-scrolling article. "Acceptable ads" requires 1990s-vintage design and avoids fixing the real problems.

Fortunately, there's a solution that works for users and for publishers. Tracking protection is a safe, publisher-friendly alternative to ad blocking. Blocks the creepy stuff, to help publishers, without dictating design or interfering with quality ads.

Tracking protection helps publishers solve the big problem, the problem that the IAB doesn't want to talk about. Data leakage.

The prime "bovine-fertilizer-based information solution" here is all the verbiage about trying to break out the ad blocking problem from the ad fraud problem from the "print dollars to digital dimes" problem. It's all connected. Shovel through it all and you get something like:

Having meetings to express grave concern about ad blocking isn't the answer, any more than having meetings to express grave concern about ad fraud is the answer.

Arguing about how to clean the carpet while the sewer pipe is still broken is not the answer.

Getting more users onto tracking protection, as an alternative to ad blocking? A way to fix data leakage at the source? For publishers, that's a good step toward the answer.

Point of order: I'm now avoiding the word "privacy" except in a direct quotation or a "Privacy Policy" document.

If I say it again, it's $1 in the jar for the EFF.

Terms to try to use instead:

Privacy is a big hairy problem, like the "freedom" in "free software." Plenty of people are philosophizing about it. But working with the web every day, the fixes that need to happen are not in the philosophy department, but in plugging the leaks that enable dysfunctional ads and building the systems to enable better ones.

Posted Thu 26 Feb 2015 06:44:08 AM PST
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Reactions from developers

When I explain the whole Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful thing to software developers who work in adtech, I keep expecting a "well, actually" from somebody. After all, the Lumascape is large so there's no way the general points I'm bringing up can possibly apply to every single company on the chart.

#NotAllAdtech, right?

Instead, I've been getting two main reactions from developers.

(example: The problem with anti-fraud measures so far is that their impact falls hardest on small legit publishers. Not only does adtech move ad revenue away from sites with real users toward fraudulent ones, but when networks attempt to stop it, they hurt the legit sites worse.)

Anyway, ad agency clients (not just CEOs) go read What Every CEO Needs To Know About Online Advertising by Bob Hoffman.

Web publishers, watch this space.

Posted Sun 22 Feb 2015 08:03:49 AM PST
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Picking the next end-user security tool

Malvertising is a thing on the Internet now. Ad fraud meets data leakage meets malware.

One way or another, some kind of tracking protection tool is going to join the basic recommended list of security software for regular users. Firewall, check. Virus checker, check. Tracking protection, check.

The question is whether the anti-malvertising slot on the shoppping list will be filled with a problematic and coarse-grained ad blocker, or with a publisher-friendly tracking protection tool such as Disconnect or the built-in tracking protection in Firefox.

What's the difference, and why does it matter?

Tracking protection tools and AdBlock Plus will each let some ads through. However, AdBlock Plus uses the concept of "acceptable ads", which is broken for modern web designs.

For pages featuring a reading text ads should not be placed in the middle, where they interrupt the reading flow. However, they can be placed above the text content, below it or on the sides.

So a nice-looking design like Quartz does not have "acceptable" ads because the ads there can appear when scrolling a long article, but a crap-ass legacy CMS that splits a shorter article into 9 pages is A-OK.

More importantly, targeted third-party ads can buy into the "acceptable" program too, which does nothing for improving the value of the medium.

This is where the IT media can influence, not just observe.

(More on the web ad problem)

Posted Tue 17 Feb 2015 07:50:26 AM PST
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Live and in person, in Los Angeles

SCALE badge

Attention all fans of me. Come hear me at Southern California Linux Expo, February 19-22 in Los Angeles, California, USA.

There's a speaker interview on the conference site, with some more info on what I'll be talking about.

(If you read this blog for the "targeted advertising considered harmful" stuff, I pitched a short talk on that, too, but I don't know if it'll get in.)

Posted Thu 12 Feb 2015 07:45:36 PM PST
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Hey, kids, slide!

The ad market, on which we all depend, started going haywire.

Alexis Madrigal

Haywire is about right. In one slide...

online ads

(from an upcoming conference talk, if I can get a conference to take it. Details.)

Posted Tue 10 Feb 2015 09:42:28 PM PST
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QoTD: Christina Xu

I am furious at a world in which women and POC are being told to be as self-confident as a group of mostly white dudes who are basically delusional megalomaniacs. We’re great the way we are, level-headed self-assessments and all. Stop rewarding them for being jackasses.

Christina Xu

Posted Tue 10 Feb 2015 10:37:20 AM PST
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Signaling fail, or, Ogilvy was right

How retargeting is supposed to work, from Rohit Yadav:

For example, prospect visits your website and you have a cookie tied into that site. That cookie is tied into an Advertisement network on the web. This allows you to follow that person around for the next five, ten or thirty days with display ads. You in a way are re-marketing yourself to that person who first hit your website and you retain brand presence. The customer is saying. “Wow, this is a big company. They must be credible with a real brand.” This is a very cost effective way to spend money.

Unfortunately for retargeting, the customer probably isn't saying that at all.

As David Ogilvy once wrote, The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife. If retargeting is something that you can explain in a blog post to the average marketing person, or to your spouse (who as Ogilvy points out is just as much of not a moron as you are), how long does it take a person using the web to figure it out?

Yadav is 100% right on the desired signaling effect of web advertising. Advertising, when it works, does have the purpose of establishing the credibility of the advertiser's brand. (Which is why ad creative is so important. If it's memorable, the advertiser gets a multiplier effect on the cost of the same ad space.)

The problem, though, and why retargeting doesn't work for signaling, is that people are now aware of it. People commonly remark on ads that follow me around the web. When the audience is aware of targeting, it breaks the signaling power of an ad.

Not only does retargeting not give one advertiser a free lunch, it contaminates everyone else's lunch by devaluing the medium. What's the solution? I think we're close to figuring it out.

Bonus links: fiction, non-fiction

Posted Fri 06 Feb 2015 06:00:50 AM PST
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Data Leakage 2.0

Mitchell Reichgut writes,

Forrester recently found that mobile represents only five percent of brands’ total advertising budget — and the majority are not making significant increases in their mobile investment year-over-year.

That matches up with other numbers out there. Mobile advertising works fine for search [coffee near me], or impulse app downloads ("I'm bored with this game, what else can I play?"). But mobile ads on average are consistently at the bottom of the standings in terms of revenue per user minute, because they're nearly perfectly targetable and carry no signal. Naturally, adtech players concur on the solution to low mobile ad revenue: throw more technology at the problem. The idea is to use "cross-device tracking" to match the people who saw mobile ads with web users.

Wait a minute—mobile ads are crappy, therefore connect them with less crappy (some web ads are remarkably good by now—see Quartz) web ads? That won't make mobile any better, because of signaling failure, but it's a pure loss for web publishers.

The data leakage problem has leveled up. With cross-device tracking, data doesn't just leak to less valuable sites in the same medium, but to a less valuable medium entirely.

Some background on data leakage from Sophia Cope at the Newspaper Association of America: Data leakage is a serious problem for newspaper websites:

Data leakage harms newspapers by affecting revenue from direct advertising sales. Third parties drop cookies when consumers are on newspaper websites, and then sell ads on other websites targeted to known newspaper readers.

Adtech advocates are trying to get everyone to flip out over ad blocking while ignoring data leakage, and so far it's working.

Ad blocking is survivable, but data leakage isn't. The web kept ad blocking to a tiny niche from 1996, when the first easy ad blockers came out, until 2010, when the Wall Street Journal's "What they Know" series hit. As browsers get better able to act on user intentions, ad blocking can be a tiny niche again.

Data leakage, on the other hand, is a long-term threat to journalism and other original creative work on the web. It forces reputable publishers to compete with infringing, fraudulent and other low-quality sites. Ad blocking is a 9-10% loss for non-technical sites. It's a problem, but not a severe one outside of the gaming niche, where more than 40% of impressions are blocked. Data leakage, though, by putting all sites into a race to the bottom, costs more like 90%, across all site categories.

The problem is that, from the point of view of adtech, data leakage is a win. Adtech is a constant game of how much data leakage various intermediaries can get away with. (Publishers and adtech firms are on opposite sides of the game, which is why publishers and brand advertisers need their own organization separate from the IAB, which works for data-leakage-powered tech companies.)

With various cross-device tracking concepts floating around, the pressure of the leak has grown. Valuable audience data isn't just leaking to bottom-feeder web sites, it can leak all the way down to mobile.

Solution?

A new kind of third-party service: original content sites are going to need another technology thing, as if there wasn't enough to worry about. A tracking protection solution. This will mean using a user trackability detection platform (UTDP), a new tech category, in order to classify user sessions into tracking-protected and tracking-vulnerable. (Once a site has the UTDP results, a tracking-protected user could get many different rewards: access to bonus content, comments promoted, or an early reset on the article count for a paywall.)

Most of the work is already done: the main part of tracking protection is on the client side, something that the users install and run. Tracking protection is a publisher-friendly alternative to an ad blocker, and many easy implementations are available. The server-side work is is to promote, nudge, and reward users for running them.

Finally, the best part: the web site side of a tracking protection program is a sponsorship opportunity, especially for advertisers with a brand personality connected to security or fraud prevention. For example, an area of a site behind a reverse tracking wall can be branded "Exclusive content only for tracking-protected users, brought to you by example.com Insurance." High-profile malvertising is likely to make this a hot sponsorship to sell.

Bonus links, part one: data leakage in action

Sean Flynn: Sports Illustrated Laid Off Entire Photo Department

MediaPost | Garfield at Large: 'Your a Traytor, You But Ugly Kosheralist Pusstard' Click Here to Learn More!

Yahoo Homepage – Now Featuring Extra-Scammy Scams (via Hacker News Daily)

Bonus leaks, part two: Have we reached "peak creepy"?

Jake Swearingen: How the Camera Doomed Google Glass (via Future Tense)

stopthecyborgs: Strategic pause

Ars Staff: Verizon will now let users kill previously indestructible tracking code

Gleb Budman: How to Save Marketing Money by Being Nice

Posted Wed 04 Feb 2015 06:36:39 AM PST
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Two half plans?

Ever wonder if this plan...

The Chinese government has adopted new regulations requiring companies that sell computer equipment to Chinese banks to turn over secret source code...

...is the other half of this plan?

The Chinese regime is getting into the patent trolling business, having set up a company that will start suing American companies....

You know how regular patent trolls have to seek out infringers and then go through a complicated discovery phase? Both just got hella easier. This trolling operation not only gets pre-researched cases, it can also go through the code submitted for "security" in order to build a shopping list of patents to acquire.

Vertically integrated economic nationalism in action.

Of course, patent reform in the USA could stifle this plan, but a little lobbying cash can go a long way to perpetuate the current dysfunctional system. The funny thing is that open source companies have figured out how to be super-careful with patent-sensitive material in their codebases from the start, so will probably be much less vulnerable.

Posted Sun 01 Feb 2015 06:06:47 PM PST
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QoTD: Zoë Keating

It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to. I was encouraged to participate and now, after I’m invested, I’m being pressured into something I don’t want to do.

Zoë Keating

Posted Sat 24 Jan 2015 09:20:29 AM PST
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mobile ad revenue fail

Arel Lidow has a look at Mary Meeker's Internet Trends report and writes, Each year, the gap between dollars spent on mobile advertising versus time spent on mobile devices increases: in 2011, the implied gap was about $14 billion; in 2013, it was about $28 billion. So why is the gap in mobile ad spend so damn large? And when will those billions of dollars come flooding in?

I plotted the same data, and and put the numbers for print, web, and mobile, across several years, on the same graph.

Clearly, Lidow is right. Mobile is remarkably disappointing, compared to web. But what is going on with print?

Even as the fraction of user time spent on print falls, it's worth more to advertisers than mobile is.

This isn't much of a surprise, if you look at advertising history. More targetable ad media such as junk fax and email spam tend to fall in value, while non-targetable ad media tend to hold or gain value. (Seems paradoxical until you look at the economics behind it.)

But here's Lidow's recommendation: If you could wave a magic wand and provide a perfect attribution system with widespread usage by marketers and agencies, the mobile ad landscape would change quickly, and ad spend would increase.

So wait a minute. Take the a low-value ad medium and make it more valuable by doing more of what makes it less valuable? Wouldn't you want to figure out how to go the other way?

I don't get it. More and more I'm starting to think that this whole surveillance marketing trend is more about selling Marketing to the rest of the company than about selling stuff to customers.

Posted Thu 22 Jan 2015 07:12:23 AM PST
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Perfect storm for web ads in 2015?

Is it just me, or is all this stuff hitting the web ad business all at once?

Consolidation

The market couldn't sustain a zillion different 8-bit microcomputers or web portals, back when those were a thing. And it has always seemed unlikely that the market can keep supporting a zillion lookalike adtech firms. Jack Marshall of the Wall Street Journal writes, A shakeout is under way in the online advertising industry, where dozens of startups—often with seemingly undifferentiated services and limited scale— face the reality that there isn’t enough room for everyone.

Google and Facebook are eating the ecosystem. Michael Eisenberg writes, Today, most adtech companies are exploiting features that are missing on the core platforms of Google, Facebook, and many of the already public companies. They are optimising and brokering between technology platforms (mobile and web), exchanges and advertisers. However, information is nearing perfection in this market, making it difficult to build a moat around businesses and maintain margins.

Large agencies that plan to make a living helping clients navigate a confusing list of technology partners are probably on the wrong side of the trend here. They're like Unix ISVs who planned to keep building the same basic product on dozens of basically identical but incompatible Unix variants. A difficult feat of management and tech integration, but not really the way that mature technology markets tend to go.

Fraud crisis

You know how, when a lot of people are starting committees to talk about how something is an industry-wide problem and it's everyone's responsibility to fix it, that means the problem is about to go away?

Me either.

Bob Hoffman explains this one best.

Blocking keeps going up, tracking protection emerges

Ad blocking is trending up, but it's not for everyone. Many users have a basic fairness expectation around advertising: if you look at the content, you should also accept the ads that that support it.

Tracking protection, though, is a situation where fairness norms point away from adtech as usual. A 2014 survey found that 87 percent of users choose not to be tracked by default. Tracking protection products such as Disconnect and Privacy Badger are using a different message from crude ad blocking, to reach more users. Disconnect is positioning its tracking protection product as as basic Internet security software—Join over 3 million people who use our open source software to protect their identities and sensitive personal info from hackers and trackers—not a way to get something for nothing.

Browser built-in tracking protection is coming along, too. Apple Safari already blocks third-party cookies, MSIE has tracking protection lists (which lump adtech in with socially-engineeered malware) and Firefox is getting its own tracking protection too.

The holdout is Google Chrome, and that's a whole other story. Google as a whole would certainly do better on an all-tracking-protected web, because if everyone's less able to track users, Google's expertise in parsing content matters more. But it's hard for information packrats to walk away from shiny, tempting information.

Tech-aware publishers

The typical adtech/publisher relationship has more in common with one-sided record contracts than with typical advertising. Publishers haven't understood the technology as well as adtech firms, and so have signed away their valuable audiences, and accepted an ongoing data leakage problem, in pursuit of surveillance marketing woo-woo.

But that's changing. New publishers have web skills from the ground up. Vox Media is a good example. And existing publishers are getting better at defending their interests. Quartz, an Atlantic Media site, runs ads that look and work more like expensive magazine ads than like ratty web display ads. And, most important, Quartz ads are intact for users running Disconnect.

The near-term effect of VC investment in web publishing startups is that many publishers will have the breathing space to turn down the short-term revenue from crappy, targeted "click the monkey" or "one weird trick" ads, and pursue other options. Stronger publishers with better in-house tech skills are likely to put data leakage back on the table, and tracking protection for a site's audience is the kind of "moat" that investors tend to look for.

Put it together

The fun part isn't any one of these trends, or even the fact that they're hitting at the same time, but how they interact.

Fraud helps drive consolidation. Consolidation, with more accurate tracking, encourages more users to try tracking protection. Tracking protection and fraud drive ad spending to quality publishers. Success for quality publishers means more investment in tracking protection. And around it goes.

What a fun year this is going to be.

Posted Thu 15 Jan 2015 05:35:48 AM PST
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Fedora 21 note: grub2 prompt

Fedora 21 installed on my main laptop ( Thinkpad, formerly Fedora 20.) Came up at a GRUB2 prompt instead of booting normally. Used this to fix:

grub2-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg
grub2-install --target=x86_64-efi 

(Found on Gentoo Forums. Appreciating the Gentoo scene right now.) I'm still not noticing a lot of differences yet, but at least I won't be showing up at SCALE this year without the shiny new thing.

Posted Sat 10 Jan 2015 07:49:41 AM PST
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QoTD: Doc Searls

Nobody is writing with more insight and depth on the subject of online advertising, and doing the work required to understand what kinds of advertising best support (and hurt) what's left of professional journalism in the networked world.

Doc Searls

(This is about me, believe it or not. if I can't get a conference speaking slot out of that...)

Posted Thu 01 Jan 2015 08:48:38 AM PST
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Predictions for 2015

(No long list of predictions, just a news story that we might see this year...)

Go For Bro? Maybe later

SAN FRANCISCO (Apr. 1, 2015) Broconomy.com is a hot new startup that helps people handle those routine chores that nobody has time for. But the online community-building drama has us filing this one under "maybe later."

When I needed my old DVD collection ripped and Ebay-ed, I hit the Broconomy app, which is well-designed and snappy (see screenshot). It quoted me a fifteen-minute wait time and dispatched a worker to my apartment. So far so good, but twenty minutes later, no worker.

It's not just me. Flaky is par for the course, according to disappointed app store comments. Broconomy CEO J.R. Dobbs Jr. blames an "online anti-tech hate campaign" by loosely organized Internet trolls. The best-known of the troll groups calls itself "International Workers of the Web." "Our workers appreciate the opportunity to make some extra income, and only a few online trolls are trying to make things worse for everyone," Dobbs said in an email interview. The online troll campaign is not associated with the Industrial Workers of the World.

According to one "union" forum, members are instructed to sign up for sharing economy sites, and subscribe to alerts of "flash strikes" on particular companies and ZIP codes. (The forum is listed as a hate site, so I can't link to it here.)

Social media expert Prof. Jane Brooklyn said in an interview that the troll campaign uses familiar methods of Internet humor to keep members engaged. Participants often post screenshots of tasks on the Broconomy app along with captions mocking the customers. "Some common themes are inability to recognize common food items or failure to complete toilet training," Brooklyn said.

The most attention-getting posts are those where a worker cancels a job at the last minute, then intercepts the new worker on the way to the customer site and makes a new recruit for the "union" campaign. "Instead of threatening or insulting workers who don't participate, they typically offer a stuffed toy animal, a cupcake, and the same small payment that the worker would have received for the original job, in cash," Brooklyn said.

Last fall, Broconomy was the subject of an investigation by the California Department of Labor. After a worker was trapped in the collapse of a customer's "Hobbit"-themed birthday party, and later rescued, the state accused the company of failing to carry worker's compensation insurance. The complaint was settled this year. Terms of the settlement are confidential, but all Broconomy workers in California were required to re-register as independent contractors for Broconomy's Qatari affiliate.

The Good

The Bad

Posted Thu 01 Jan 2015 07:05:26 AM PST
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Older stuff: archive