Guardian online advertising

Ad tech is killing the online experience

Reading news on sites such as Facebook is about monetising your visitThe economics of online publishing, such as reading news on Facebook, is about monetising your visit. Photograph: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

There’s something so wonderfully easy about reading this column in a physical newspaper. You turned the page, and here it is, with few annoyances or distractions, in an ultra-high-definition typeface which was custom-designed with pleasurable reading in mind. Or – wait – are you reading this on a phone? Did you follow a link from Twitter, or Facebook? Or maybe you’re on a train, or a plane, or you’re trying to use your laptop on your cousin’s crappy Wi-Fi connection out in the countryside somewhere. In which case, there’s a pretty good chance that even getting this far is some kind of minor miracle.

Web-based articles, these days, are increasingly an exercise in pain and frustration. In many ways, the experience of reading such things is worse today than it was in the early days of dial-up internet. Because at least back then web pages were designed with dial-up users in mind. They were mostly text, and even if they used images, the text always loaded first. Today, by contrast, everything is built for a world where everybody has a high-bandwidth supercomputer in their pocket. That’s not because we all do have high-bandwidth supercomputers in our pockets, although the web technologists who are building these sites generally do, and have a tendency to forget about everybody else. Rather, it’s a function of misaligned incentives.

When it comes to the economics of online publishing, the first thing to remember is that job No 1 isn’t to get the news to you. Rather, it is to monetise you, by selling you off, in real time, to the highest bidder. This happens every time you click on a link, before the page has even started to load on your phone. Once upon a time, if you and I both visited the same web page at the same time using the same web browser, we would end up seeing the same thing. Today, however, an almost unthinkably enormous ecosystem of scripts and cookies and auctions and often astonishingly personal information is used to show you a set of brand messages and sales pitches which are tailored almost uniquely to you.

That ecosystem raises important questions about privacy and just general creepiness – the way that the minute you look at a pair of shoes online, for instance, they then start following you around every other website you visit for weeks. But whether or not you value your privacy, you are damaged, daily, by the sheer weight of all that technology.

Apple blogger John Gruber started off a new debate about these issues recently, when he noted that a 537-word text post on the website weighed in at 14 megabytes. (Fourteen megabytes of text should correspond to about 7m words, or about 10 times the combined length of the Old and New Testaments.)

Gruber blamed, but really it’s not the website’s fault, since to a very large degree the owner of the website you’re visiting doesn’t actually control what you see, when you see it, how you see it, or even whether you see it. Instead, there are dozens of links in the advertising-technology chain, and every single one of them is optimising for financial value, rather than low-bandwidth user experience. Many pages, if you’re on a slow connection, simply time out; they never load at all.

This is the tragedy of the commons. It’s your bandwidth, and you’re paying for it, but everybody else is clogging it up with stuff you never asked for or wanted. The result is a hugely degraded user experience – bordering on the completely unusable, in many situations. Is there anybody who can fix this problem? Well, there’s one potential white knight out there – Apple. The new iPhone operating system, out this summer, will allow easy, simple content blocking. This move is being sold as a response to privacy concerns, but it is sure to improve performance as well – at least on iPhones, and at least for people who have installed the right plugins.

More broadly, however, ads’ thirst for bandwidth seems destined to increase relentlessly, whether or not bandwidth itself increases quickly enough to meet that need. Already many web publishers have started to force their viewers to sit through a video ad not just before they watch video content, but even before they read a text story.

Online ads have never got less annoying over time, and you can be sure that mobile ads are going to get more annoying as well, once Silicon Valley has worked out how to better identify who you are. The move to greater privacy protections might help slow the pace with which such technologies are adopted. But there’s no realistic hope that websites will actually improve from here. If you want to avoid the dreadful experience of the mobile web, you’ll only have one choice – which is to start reading your articles natively, in the Facebook or Apple News app. But it won’t be Facebook and Apple who killed the news brands. It’ll be ad tech.

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