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Berners-Lee slams Net advertising

The Perversion is the Message

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Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has issued a stinging rebuke to online advertisers for suckering people into clicking on ads dressed up to look like content.

Speaking at the International Advertising Association in London, he also slammed the practice of designing ads to look as if they are computer system messages. And he was positively scathing about the practice of attaching ads to email sent by users of Microsoft-owned Hotmail. "This either perverts or distorts the message", The Guardian reports him saying.

"I find the practice of publishing ads that are indistinguishable from content unacceptable. It not only clouds the true message of the page. It also erodes consumer confidence in the Web site."

Berners-Lee called for clear demarcation between advertising and content on Web pages.

"Newspapers insert a line saying an ad is an advertisement when it looks confusing. I want to see something similar on a Web page. Perhaps the mouse should change when it passes over an ad to alert you to the fact."

It's free - what more do you want?
Berners-Lee is a moral guardian of the Internet, a reminder of a time when there was a kinder, gentler, less goddam greedy online world. His call for ad/content demarcation seems sensible. (It's what The Register does, and we don't find it so very difficult). But does he go far enough?

Internet advertising houses contacted by The Guardian, are not impressed with his arguments. We'll lift just the one quote, from Barry Salzman, president of Doubleclick International: "Consumers make a trade-off between free Net access and having to suffer ads. I think it's a fair swap," he says.

In other words, put up, or pay up, or push off. This is all well and good. But people don't 'consume' Web sites like this. Advertising pisses them off - if it is 'interruptive' - too flashy, or too pop-uppy. Here's an example: the first pop-up ad on The Register appeared 50,000 times. There were two click-throughs, a record low, and more than 300 complaints, a record high. The latter response was pumped up by a weird glitch in the html of the ad. This meant the recipient had to click the pop-up three or four times before it disappeared from his or her screen.

Web sites are set to see more, not fewer, intrusive adverts - animated gifs, pop-ups, rich media, inter and hyperstitials and ads that don't look like ads, are the order of the day. For the simple reason that -if coded properly - they generate more response for advertisers than 'boring', static ads.

Permission to sell, sir

Seth Godin, author of "Permission Marketing" (ISBN 0-684-85636-o), and vice president of direct marketing at Yahoo!, sums up the challenge faced by Web sites which, like The Register, rely on advertising for a major proportion of their income. In an interview with Computer Weekly he says: "If you put a Web site exactly where you hope it will interrupt someone, it's still like walking into a bar and propositioning a total stranger."

But what if the Web site knows more about you than you think it should? If the ads are too well targeted, it could show that there is some privacy-chomping data collection going on. Even if it is not the Web site, but a third party ad serving company which is doing the collating.

In recent months, Doubleclick, the world's biggest Internet ad agency, and the owner of ad server software used by The Register, among thousands of companies, has come under enormous fire for attempting to aggregate information collected online with personal data collated by its new subsidiary, Abacus. Doubleclick withdrew its plans, under the flak. But the privacy debate rages on.

Doubleclick tells us that it does not aggregate demographics information culled through the use of cookies from our Web site, with information garnered elsewhere. We use a third party ad server, because we rely on advertising, and advertisers insist on third party ad serving software. We don't think there is anything sinister in this, but some readers disagree - here is a letter, received only today that sums up, a certain strand of opinion.

"So as an 'independent' watchdog you admit you are in fact beholden to your advertisers .... Jeez that is pathetic. Few real world people object to web ads and ad servers with their verifiable page views are a fact of life. It is the data mining, tracking etc etc that they do with the data which is objectionable and borders on being illegal if not so already."

We have never claimed to be independent - how can we, when we accept advertising - only neutral. The credibility test for us and other editorial Web sites is to be seen to be neutral. Which is why we rebuffed -in seconds - two (admittedly tentative) approaches from computer companies, asking if they could invest in us or buy us. And which is why we have sympathy for Slashdot, independence clause or no independence clause, for finding itself being owned by VA Linux. At least it can afford to go easy on the banner ads.

50 ways to make your fortune

The Register is a tech news site, open to all. For us the news is the thing- three of the four founders are computer journalists. The next step is to figure out how to make it pay. We chose advertising and syndication. But we could have gone down some other routes:

  • The newsletter. Crap production, expensive subscriptions and preaching to the few. But no ads.
  • The analysts - but how would the fat fees we receive from computer companies affect what we publish?
  • Microbilling. Flaky technology, enough said.
  • Nominal subscription fees. Haven't seen either model working too successfully elsewhere, except for WSJ. But that is an outstanding exception. But why not try again? If enough of you paid, say, $10 a year, we could ensure that you would never see an ad on The Register again. We could also lose 90 per cent of our readers and still make good. But hey, we like talking to the many.
  • Ecommerce route 1. Data mining, as mentioned by our disaffected reader - but to do this properly, we'd need to base your back-office software on something like Broadvision or Bladerunner. And to get your permission, we'd have to make you log in. And we send you lots of emails (that permission marketing thing, again)
  • Ecommerce route 2. Go out and flog stuff. These days the difficulty with many "editorial" Web sites, is deciding what is content and what is commerce. Content - can mean job recruitment, comparison-shopping engines, classified advertising, micro-sites (the online equivalent of newspaper advertorials), email text ads. Take a quick look at the home pages of Cnet and ZDnet, the runaway market leaders in online IT publishing. Editorial content is not exactly the highest priority for either company - it probably never was at Cnet. Note how, the demarcation lines for these gigantic shopping engines are becoming increasingly blurred. And the more blurred they become, the more highly they will be rated in the equity markets.

Content perverts editorial

No, we don't have the answers to the issues raised by advertising on the Internet. And how it affects The Register and our readers. But do we have our thinking hats on. Feel free to contribute, on the Register Forum (the link is below). ®

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