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Publishers, Privacy is as Important For You as it is For Your Readers

Written by on August 14, 2015

I recently wrote a Plus article about the problem with ad-blockers for publishers, but I want to expand a bit on it by clarifying some issues.

The problem with ad blockers isn't the ad-blockers. It's why we use them, and we can basically look at that in three ways:

Advertising hate

The first problem is based on advertising fatigue and annoyance, and Marco Arment explained this quite well recently.

More than fifteen years ago, in response to decreasing ad rates and banner blindness, web advertisers and publishers adopted pop-up ads.

People hated pop-up ads. We tolerated in-page banners as an acceptable cost of browsing free websites, but pop-ups were over the line: they were too annoying and intrusive. Many website publishers claimed helplessness in serving them - the ads came from somewhere else that they had little control over, they said. They really needed the money from pop-ups to stay afloat, they said.

The future didn't work out well for pop-ups. Pop-up-blocking software boomed, and within a few years, every modern web browser blocked almost all pop-ups by default.

A line had been crossed, and people fought back.

This pretty much nails it, doesn't it? Advertising today has become so annoying and invasive that we simply won't accept things to keep going as they have.

It's game over.

Of course, new ad formats will take their place. For a while they will seem like the solution, until they too will be optimized and exploited and the cycle repeat itself.

But right now, the javascript-based 'let's put an ad on this page' is being eliminated from existence. And once it's gone, it's gone.

The threat here isn't really the ad-blockers, but how browsers will start to build in the functionality to block this by default, like what we are now seeing on iOS. That was also what killed the pop-up ads. It wasn't the third party tools or extensions. What killed the pop-up ads was when this became the default setting in every browser.

Many people are currently trying to suggest ways to either combat this trend, or telling publishers they need to design better banner ads, but it's too late for that.

Can you imagine if someone came along and said that pop-up ads could be saved if we just designed better pop-up windows? Of course not. The problem is not what's in the pop-up, it's the annoyance of the very existence of the pop-up window itself.

So... again, it's game over. The future is to move on to different and better ways of doing advertising altogether.

Massive violation of people's rights

The other much bigger problem is how the whole world of advertising has turned into this giant privacy vacuum machine, sucking up all types of information... and then selling it for profit.

Mind you, this is actually illegal in many European countries, but, because we are all using US services where this problem is running rampant, we are getting hit by it too.

And no, I don't mean Google. Google does collect a lot of things about people, but they are not selling your data, and it has a very singular use. Of all the privacy problems we have, Google doesn't even come close to being one of the worst companies on the market

What I'm talking about is companies like these: "The nine companies that know more about you than Google or Facebook", and all the many other companies who are either partnering with these, selling their data to them, or trying to mimic what they do themselves.

The problem with all of this is not just that the whole industry and practice of data brokers has to be put to a stop (which is exactly what we have done in Europe). It's also that many tools and services that we usually do not consider harmful, is secretly partnering with these companies (either for profit, or for mutual beneficial data exchanges, as they say). So, for instance, when you go to Target, your purchase history is sold to a data broker for a profit, where they will then link it to your financial and medical history.

What the frak?

How dare companies do that to their customers? I cannot imagine a more disastrous violation of trust. It's no longer about giving brands your attention in exchange for value, because we do not actually get any value in return.

This is 100% about exploitation, and since the industry isn't capable of fixing this itself, we are now going to fix it for them. First with ad-blockers, and soon with default browser settings that will simply eliminate it altogether.

We have had enough. A line has been crossed.

CPU performance hit

The third problem is just as extreme. You know when you go out and buy a low-end OEM PC? What you actually get is a computer that has so much crap and bloatware installed that it's almost impossible to use.

My mother bought an ACER a while back, and it was working so badly that she sent it back twice to 'get it fixed', which never worked. And it wasn't until I took a look at it and simply deleted all the crap ACER had preinstalled that it started working again.

Not only that, but removing all that crap/bloatware from her computer made it at least twice as fast, if not more.

The same thing has happened online.

I looked at a number of publisher sites, and found that by blocking the 3rd party content I could speed up the sites by more than 500%. In fact, let me show you what actually happens when you load a site like TMZ. Here is what happens when you load just a single page:

You will notice that it starts out pretty good. It first loads the page, the internal scripts that make the site work, the style sheet and the images. All those are fine, and this takes about two seconds.

But the video doesn't end after 2 seconds does it? No, it goes on for a whole minute, and as you continue to watch you see tons and tons of requests being made from all types of sites, most of whom you have never heard about.

At the end of the video, at the lower-right, you can see the result of this madness:

  • 803 requests
  • 19.5 MB of data
  • 59 seconds load time

If you do exactly the same test using the standard ad-blocker settings, you can reduce this to 1/3rd. And if you block all 3rd party content, you can reduce it to 1/8th.

This is taking crap and bloatware to the extreme. Publishers today are doing exactly the same to the internet as PC OEM makers are doing to cheap laptops.

And, again, we have had enough.

All this crap is slowing down the internet, increasing CPU load and blowing up battery life to such an extend that it's just ridiculous.

In fact, it's so ridiculous that Facebook invented 'Instant Articles' fooling clueless publishers into thinking that they should directly publish on Facebook because it was faster. But guess what, it's not faster at all. It's just that, on Facebook, they have removed all your crap from your site so that only the article remains.

That's how stupid this is.

On top of this we also have all the crap that isn't advertising as such. Like the horrendously bad Taboola content links.

I simply do not understand why any publisher would use them. It's the single most effective way to absolutely decimate your reputation as a publisher in exchange for the least valuable traffic possible.

I am so annoyed by all the sites that use Taboola that I have blocked Taboola at a browser level.

Why the hell are publishers doing this? What insane trend graph are you looking at that shows you that adding this much crap to your site is a good idea? Name me one reader who says that she likes having all this crap loaded into her browsers, just one!

When you do this, you stop being a publisher and you start being a spammer. That's what this is.

It's these three things combined, a serious level of advertising annoyance and fatigue, massive violations of trust and privacy, and so much crap and bloatware added to so many sites that are causing the trend of ad-blockers.

Again, as Marco wrote: "A line had been crossed, and people are fighting back."

And: "I recently started using Ghostery on my computers, and a simple homemade iOS content blocker that I may release for iOS 9's launch. The web performance improvements with these are staggering, and the reports of quite how much Ghostery is blocking on most pages is shocking and disgusting."

Yep.

As publishers, you need to change this now. Not tomorrow or next week, but now!

This trend is already past the point of no return. What will happen over the next few years is very simple to predict. First, the absolute hate against all of these will continue to grow and Adblock usage will follow. The stats for how many that use ad-blockers today is a bit contradicting, but it's already at about 25% in western countries.

You need to rethink the way your sites are made, and how you use different services.

Take TMZ. It has added elements to its site from 81 different 'partners', some being ad companies while others are simply tiny tools that doesn't actually benefit the readers in any way. And each one of these partners do their own data collecting, processing (and some sell it too).

Do you really need to add 81 third party services to run a site? And have you actually checked what those sites add?

Did you know, for instance, that many of these sites add their own analytics tracking codes? Sometimes these services add their own GA tracking codes as well. GA is not the bad player here, but what that means is that some of these 3rd party 'partners' end up having full analytics about what traffic you have.

That's insane. Why would you allow a third party tool to have that kind of insight into your business?

Here is an example from TMZ. It has added the Tumblr follow button (along with many others), which does nothing else than to allow people to click on a button.

That's all that this button does. It adds a freaking button that works as a normal image-link. But you know what also happens behind the scenes? Well, this:

Yes, when you add the code supplied by Tumblr to add this simple button, they are secretly adding their own GA code to it as well. And, as you can see, that GA code tracks which site and page the button is displayed on.

And this tracking takes place not when people click on the button, but when it is loaded into TMZ's page.

What this means is that Yahoo (who owns Tumblr), can now simply log in to Tumblrs GA account, segment on TMZ, and get detailed analytics about everything that is happening on that site. They can see how much traffic TMZ has, what that traffic is doing, what pages people are reading, the bounce rates, how loyal people are, and so many other things.

TMZ is giving Yahoo complete and detailed site analytics.

I'm pretty sure none of TMZ executives know about this. And I'm pretty sure that they would be as outraged as I am about it if they found out. I'm also pretty sure that the executives over at Time Warner (who owns TMZ) don't know about it either.

Can you imagine if a web developer at TMZ walked into the executive suite of Time Warner saying:

Hello ... Ehm ... so, is it okay if we give Yahoo complete access to our internal analytics so that we can add a button on our site that links to Tumblr?

No, of course not!

And, of course, this isn't just happening on TMZ. This is happening on every publisher's site that have added the Tumblr 'follow button' code. And it isn't just about Tumblr either, because many of your so-called 'third party tools' are doing the same thing.

Why are you allowing this?

You see, this is not just about the privacy of your readers. It's very much about the privacy of yourself as a publisher. Why should Tumblr or any other 3rd party be allowed to get complete site analytics for your publication, just because you wanted to add a button?

This is unacceptable.

And, of course, from a reader perspective, it's even worse. Because, when you add that Tumblr button to your site, Tumblr can track your readers across sites, all over the internet.

Mind you, I have nothing against Tumblr. It's a great site. And when I am using Tumblr, I have no problem with them tracking what I do and what I see.

But when I'm not on Tumblr or visiting another site, Tumblr should not be allowed to track what I do there.

Again, as Marco wrote:

A line has been crossed, and people are fighting back.

You, as publishers, need to fight back at this. This influences your data as much as your readers. This is not about the ad-blockers. This is about getting real.

If a third party tool wants to do complete site analytics for your readers, which they use to monetize their business, getting a button in return is not an acceptable business deal.

Neither for you as a publisher, and definitely not for your readers.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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