Tag Archives: Online advertising

An Advertising Conundrum

I guessed this would happen eventually: through one of the advertising aggregators I use for this blog a service I’ve been critical of has submitted an ad. Do I accept it?

Advertising aggregators provide a service to companies by letting them place banner and other web ads on participating blogs. I’ve been trying FeedBurner, for example, which puts ads on my blog and at the bottom of blog postings. They’re pretty obviously ads, since they’re all snazzy and jazzed up, and they help to defray (I love using the word ‘defray’) the costs of running the blog. Not everyone likes having to put up with ads, but we’re not running a charity here.

Anyway, Xdrive, an online storage service now owned by AOL, has just submitted an ad. I knew this might happen; I’ve seen their ad appear on other blogs using the FeedBurner service. But this blog has been something of a thorn in the side of Xdrive, ever since I started writing about some user complaints about a year ago (Google “xdrive” and a Loose Wire post appears among the first 10 results. Google “xdrive problems”  and it’s top.) And things don’t seem to have gotten any better: two readers complained only last week about the service.

My first reaction was to decline the ad, something I’ve only done once before with a service that was too unclear about what it offered to pass muster (I love saying ‘muster’ too.) Why should I allow an ad for a service that may not be up to scratch? But then cooler heads prevailed. Declining the Xdrive ad would imply I had somehow endorsed the ads I had approved to run. While I’ll try not to allow ads that appear to be questionable, I don’t think readers are going to assume that every product advertised on this blog is one I suggest they go out and buy. Or do you?

Two other issues raise their heads: Should I alert AOL that they’re running an ad on a blog that has been critical of the service that they’re advertising? Or is it their lookout? (Perhaps they know this already and are trying to redress the balance. Or they see criticism as part of the conversation.)

Another: Should I make clearer what my policy is on advertising so readers are not confused? And if so, where should I put it? And what should it say? That’s something I’m going to work on, and of course something I’d be delighted to take input on from readers. I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to face this issue. The debate about balancing the needs of advertisers with the needs of a free and objective press is not a new one, and not one that, to my knowledge, has ever been entirely resolved. Maybe bloggers can have a shot at it.

The Pop Up Piggyback

Is it just me, or have these interstitial ads or whatever they call themselves suddenly become ubiquitous, and no less annoying for it? They now seem to be everywhere (even O’Reilly uses them, shockingly, although it does offer a way to disable them). These are ads, courtesy of companies like Vibrant Media IntelliTXT, that add underlined links to certain words on a website which, when you move your mouse over them, pop up an ad that’s tangentially related to the word in question. This one, for example:

Intellitxt

The ad is for digital cameras. The word link is “review”. The piece itself is about solar-powered garden lights from one of my favorite gadget sites, the long running Gadgeteer. But these ads drive me nuts. Move your mouse over any of the nine links on that article and you’ll get a popup window like the above. Few of them are useful or relevant, as the following study reveals:

  • AC adapter – as in “There’s something really cool about using the power of the sun instead of the power of an AC adapter, when it comes to powering products” — throws up an ad for Laptop AC adapters
  • Review – as in “that’s why I was more than happy to review a solar powered garden accent light” — throws up an ad for Digital Cameras
  • Light weight – as in “The product is composed of a durable and UV protected resin material that looks very much like stone, while remaining light weight” — throws up an ad for Light weight (sic. The ad text is for “Shop for great deals on light weight and millions of other products”. No idea what they’re talking about)
  • Picture — as in “One clue that this might be the case [i.e. that the product cracks; They’re thorough in their reviews over there] is the picture hanger built into the back of the stone” — throws up ad for Free Digital Photo Software
  • Battery – as in “On the back of the stone, you see the battery compartment” — throws up ad for PDA batteries
  • Batteries — as in “Two rechargeable nickel-cadmium AA batteries are included and pre-installed” — throws up ad for Siemens Cordless Phone Batteries
  • Rechargeable batteries — as in “pre-installed rechargeable batteries store energy to power the light at night” — throws up ad for Sanyo rechargeable batteries, the first ad in this bunch which is vaguely relevant to the context.
  • Photo — as in “The built-in photo sensor automatically activates the light” — throws up an ad for Musical Slideshow software
  • Flash — as in “Here’s a picture of the stone that I took without a flash” — throws up an ad for Pentax SLR Digital Flash, arguably relevant but so specific you have to wonder whether anyone is really going to be reading the piece and needing a Pentax SLR Digital Flash
  • Conclusion: Out of 9 ads, 1.5 might be possibly considered useful to the reader.

I’ve whinged about this before (and before), believing it was too intrusive and likely to create a conflict of interest on the part of content creators who may be influenced to insert words that are more likely to match contextual words sold to advertisers. In the example above, for example, a less scrupulous content producer than The Gadgeteer might have chosen, or be encouraged to choose “photo sensor” over “photosensor” (the latter spelling slightly more popular online than the former) because the word “photo” would attract more ads. That’s not a sinister example, but what if the ad sellers forwarded a list of words popular among advertisers, which would steer content producers into putting those words into their writing?

(Vibrant Media says that “IntelliTXT ad units are delivered in real-time and deployed after the article has been published by the website. This is an automated process that cannot influence, or be influenced by the Editorial Team at this website or any other partner publication.” It also includes in its guidelines (PDF) a line: “Vibrant Media strongly encourages publishers not to implement IntelliTXT in late breaking news, political coverage, or other news channels that Vibrant Media deems to be controversial or inappropriate.”)

But the conflict of interest issue (news websites like Forbes.com stopped dealing with IntelliTXT, apparently over this issue) is less important to me than the annoyance and befuddlement that comes with these faux links. There is one real link in Julie’s review but it’s lost in there. First off, it’s the same color as the IntelliTXT ads, but it’s not double underlined, and it’s covered, when the mouse moves over the line above, by an IntelliTXT pop up (see if you can spot it in the screenshot above.) I find these ads annoying, distracting, and not a little confusing. When you compare it to the contextual ads displayed alongside content, you can’t help wondering whether this is a big step backwards for online content. (The ads alongside Julie’s review include one on Solar Powered Fountains and one on Solar battery chargers. I’d argue both those are a darned sight more relevant than any of the interstitials.)

Vibrant Media call this kind of advertising “user-driven advertising”. How is it user-driven? It says that “IntelliTXT helps empower users to view relevant advertising on their own terms.” Relevant? I think not. How “empower”, exactly? “Own terms”? I’d argue IntelliTXT piggy backs a fine tradition of hyperlinking — the vision and bedrock of the World Wide Web to sucker users into mistaking a popup ad for a genuine link.

Vibrant Media sells the idea to advertisers as a way to “Use words to brand. Cut through the online advertising clutter”. Actually, I’d argue it adds to the clutter, and, as the example above shows, has nothing to do with “branding” as anyone I know might understand it.

So what can one do? First off, IntelliTXT isn’t loading anything onto your computer. The ads are sleazy, but the actual implementation isn’t. If you’re a Firefox user, install Greasemonkey and then this IntelliTXT Disabler script. The IntelliTXT links will load, briefly appear and then you won’t see them no more. If you’re not a Firefox user, get it. Sure, websites need advertising to survive, but lets make sure they are either smart ads, funny ads, ads that are relevant to the content, ads that don’t mislead the reader, and, finally, ads that don’t get in the way.

The Future of Animal Advertising

For those of you who listen to podcast versions of my slot on the BBC World Service, this isn’t one. Apologies. What this is is what I hope will be the beginnings of more regular podcast fare known, tentatively, as Loose Wireless. To start off, it’s just me yakking away on subjects that interest me, either stuff I’ve already written about or stuff I’m reading about. I’m hoping to be joined by a few collaborators later, but for now it’s just an experiment. If it doesn’t take up too much time, and there’s an appetite for it, I’ll try to do more. Here’s today’s edition of Loose Wireless, which takes a look at three stories in today’s International Herald Tribune, which seem to carry a theme, best described as: Could cows be the next form of online advertising?

Here it is

Flash, Floating Ads And Hijacking Your Webcam

I haven’t had time to look at this closely, and humble apologies if this is old hat, but can pop-up ads hijack users’ web-cams and microphones?

I was surfing at a website called This Is London, when on one page a pop-up Flash ad appeared for Starbucks. I was using Mozilla Firefox 0.7 and it just would not disappear from right above the first few paragraphs of the piece I was trying to read. Like this:

I right clicked on it and got a menu option for Flash settings. When I clicked on that, this is what popped up (well this is another ad that appeared on the same page when I viewed it in another browser, but it’s pretty much the same apart from the website address):

The earlier website was for uk.tangozebra.com, which doesn’t resolve, but which I’m assuming is part of Tangozebra, a ‘leading online advertising and marketing solutions provider in the UK’. The other link, serving-sys.com, doesn’t resolve either but is registered to New York-based online advertising company Eyeblaster.com. You can repeat the trick of getting the above window to appear if you click on their floating ad example and then right click on the ad.

So what is going on? I realise I’m not the first to spot this kind of thing, and the innocent explanation is that it is a built in feature of Macromedia Flash, not some sinister part of the floating ad thing. (Here’s Macromedia’s take on this, which seems to be nearly two years old.) But if this has been the case for a while, why has it not been stopped? And what would happen if I did allow the Flash program to access my camera and microphone? And, lastly, why would the Starbucks ad not disappear until I clicked on it and allowed another window to pop up?

The Pay Per Click Scam

Is the whole pay-per-click industry swamped by fraud?

WebProWorld says that Michael Bradley, recently arrested for trying to extort money from Google, is a wake up call to the PPC industry. He claimed to have developed software that would automatically click on Google ads, potentially costing both Google and their advertisers millions of dollars. (Here’s more on Bradley and his Google Clique software from InternetNews and SEOBook.)

As WPW point out, this could be just the tip of an iceberg, both in terms of what is already out there, and what could be out there. While it’s by no means clear how widespread it is, but the potential is strong: Why would companies want to pay for ads if they’re not convinced real people are clicking on them?

And if that happened — or if it’s already happened — what would happen to online advertising?

Microsoft Rush Out New Toolbar

Microsoft’s MSN have gone the way of Google and launched a toolbar that also blocks pop-ups.

To explain the business behind this business, read the excellent Microsoft Monitor. It points out that Google’s toolbar does all this already, and is at the same time diverting searches away from Microsoft. Given that a ‘sizeable chunk’ of Microsoft’s ad revenue comes from paid searches, this hurts. Hence the toolbar, which, like Internet Explorer’s default search engine (and most other Microsoft products), will take you to MSN. As Microsoft Watch points out, this is the old MSN search engine, not their spanking new one.

Then there’s the pop-up blocker. Microsoft Monitor reckon that “40 percent of consumers say they find traditional pop-up ads to be the most annoying forms of on online advertising”. Internet Explorer doesn’t block ads, and won’t until the release of a Windows XP Service Pack (a kind of add-on, pulling together all the updates since the last Service Pack) later this year. It’s clear Microsoft can’t wait that long, hence the toolbar.

Revenge Of The Popup

TechDirt points to a new service that beats PopUp blockers. The Popstitial, according to marketing company webadvantage, “doesn’t defeat pop blockers, it instead determines whether a popup blocker is being used. If so, Popstitial then serves up a full-page advertisement that can either be a separate ad or the same style as the missed pop-up/pop-under”. In other words, it will work out whether you’ve tried to block the popup, and punish you with a popup you can’t block. As TechDirt points out, “The reason people install pop-up blockers is because they don’t want to be bothered with these intrusive ads.”

Sadly, this is just another salvo in the war between people who want to pump ads at you, and people who don’t want to have ads pumped to them. But, on closer inspection, it’s also a somewhat alarming escalation. The Popstitial is developed by the FPBA Group, a “California rich media company” (read ad software company). FPBA happens to stand for  “Full Page Banner Ad”, which was a product the company was touting in mid 2001 as “the killer app that the online advertising companies need in order to take this industry to the next level.” The FPBA, it went on

is a full-page advertisement that is displayed on the primary browser session in between page loads. It does not launch a new pop-up session and does not interfere with the main browsing session. The ad is loaded to the users computer after downloading of the main session page, and is cached prior to its being launched when the user transfers out of the main session page. This allows a seamless delivery of web-page — advertisement — web-page progression. The advertisement is not cluttered by surrounding web-page content, and is timed to appear when the consumer has nothing else to focus upon, so that the full attention of the consumer is focused on the advertisement. A multimedia version of the ad, incorporating audio and video flash components is also available where the ads play like a short commercial in a rich media environment.

In English, the FPBA would load in the background as you viewed a webpage, and then appear on your screen when you tried to go somewhere else. The idea is that you’re not looking at a specific web page so it will get your ‘full attention’. I have to confess I never saw any instances of this outside the pornographic world (according to my friend John) so, and I’m guessing here, the FPBA was not the killer app the company thought it would be.

So perhaps the Popstitial (I hate the name already) may do the trick. It’s certainly intrusive enough: According to Internet marketing mag iMedia Connection, Popstitial is a bit more sleazy (my words, not theirs) than simply replacing a pop-up which is blocked by a pop-up blocker. It will notice if a user closes a pop-up window ‘before actively viewing an ad’ and launch “a full-page advertisement to replace the lost pop-up impression. This insures advertisers’ messages are getting across to the intended target audience seamlessly.” These ads could be Flash, video, animated gifs, or static images; they are “fully trackable, geo-targeted, day-parted, and frequency capped” (OK I don’t know what that means but it sounds scary.)

In shorthand: if you don’t view the popup before closing it, or try to block it, you’ll get blasted with a Full Page Banner Ad. Call it Revenge of the Popup.

This is partly testimony to the success of popup blockers. iMedia quote the CEO of FBPA Group as saying that “Many sites, both large and small, have told us that at least 25 percent of all users have some sort of pop-up blocker activated.” Which is impressive. Expect the popup war to grind on.