I've been working on the Web for close to 20 years (I feel so old saying that!). I have seen trends come and go, issues addressed and re-addressed. Like the concept of evergreen content. I thought Web content was supposed to be updated constantly. How is this suddenly a new trend? I thought that was the practice for a site to keep current?
Or simplicity. There has always been a movement to make a site seem simple and have interactions be direct. It seemed that flat navigation was the "new thing," but it was always the "new thing." Jef Raskin could speak to that.
There is a new disturbing trend I'm seeing - long page load times for news sites because of ads.
A couple of days ago, I went to HuffPost to get my daily update on what's going on in the world. The site T O O K F O R E V E R to load. And I mean forever! And this wasn't the first time, so I figured it's time to investigate and understand why this took so long.
I thought part of the reason could have been due to Outlook hoovering memory on my Mac. (Please don't ask me why I use Outlook rather than Mail. It's a long and complicated story that isn't very interesting.) So I closed Outlook to see if things with HuffPost's load time improved. Nope. I tried my iPad. That was a little better, but not really.
So I decided to run a little test on some news sites to see if they all had this "ailment."
My sample set included: DailyBeast, Vox, Bloomberg, Vice, WSJ (they had the best news site, by the way. I don't know what they did with ads loading, but you could read headlines without unloaded ads interfering with content), and Business Insider. And they all had pretty much the same problem - the ads loaded slowly.
I don't have any specific time/load measurements because this was a casual observation and study, but in many cases, the last items to load on the page were the ads. And if the ads weren't loaded, I couldn't scroll down the page. In some cases, the ads being served overtook the page as a layer, or expanded to a larger ad from a smaller ad, or were videos. I mean, these were really big ads with intricate creative. Stunning, but at the same time, it detracted from my goal for visiting the site - reading content.
I understand that news sites need ad revenue to make ends meet, but at the same time, users aren't there to look at ads.
Again, they are there to read content.
So who are these ads really designed for? Is the site optimized for the ad payers?
I remember in the early days of the Web when we'd optimize a page to be below 100-150K so it would load as fast as possible to users on dial-up and lower bandwidth environments. We'd try to optimize images, use more text and fewer images (ah - when CSS matured! That made life so much easier!). And we'd track our competitor's page load times to be sure we weren't higher than them. At times, we spent more time optimizing pages for load time than we would designing them!
And then bandwidth for all got higher, so this debate ended and 250K and above didn't seem like such a big deal.
Until mobile came along, and pages were optimized for that experience with the same parameters as the early days of the Web - low bandwidth, small screens.
We see on average 5,000 different ads per day. That's a lot of ads. And a lot of outside influence.
I don't remember seeing that many messages growing up. We had TV and magazines. Newspapers and radio. But with the Internet, there are ads all over the place.
There are ads when you do a Google search. I know people who won't click on ad space there because they know that someone paid Google to put them there and it may not be relevant to them. Or on a news site, these same people only read the articles on a page and ignore the ads. I believe there are studies that proved people overlook/skim over ads on a page (here's an old report - but it's still kinda relevant).
But we all know, you can't unsee what you saw. Even if you scanned an ad, its message was imprinted in your mind and made you think about The Gap, Banana Republic, The Container Store, Target, or any other retailer or company that wants you to think about them. It's like that new lover who keeps texting you every 15 minutes so you don't forget about them.
Ads build awareness of a brand. Sometimes users click on them; sometimes they don't. In my view, ads are an easy way to generate revenue - give a marketer hope that people will keep their brand in mind after they see it.
Successful ad metrics are usually based on views. Until the days of the Internet, ad revenue couldn't be mapped to a sale. It was just awareness building. Even now, an ad can be somewhat tracked to a sale, but also not. It's complicated, and often makes me wonder why we put ads out there anyway.
Advertising is a multi-billion dollar business, pretty much expanded by Edward Bernays. Not sure who he is? Read his book, Propaganda. You won't see advertising the same after that. Actually, you won't see the world the same after that.
According to him, PR and advertising are ways to change our behavior and get us to want to do something we normally wouldn't want to do. Or at least, that is the goal.
Advertisers want us to buy things and spend money with their company. However, if you take a step back you start to realize:
- There isn't enough money to buy all that is being asked of us to buy.
- The larger corporations don't care which of their divisions you spend your money in - they just want your money.
For example, if you shop at Banana Republic, The Gap or Old Navy, it doesn't really matter to Gap, Inc. You are spending money all at the same corporation. That's what they really want.
When HuffPost loaded slowly on my computer, I also wondered if the problem was my Internet connection. There are days that I think Net Neutrality is becoming an idea of the past, especially when I experience such slow page load time. Vox mentioned that Netflix has already experienced this insanity of paying to reach its customers.
And the Internet carriers are arrogant enough to tell us how much bandwidth we can have. The FCC said we need about 10mbps, with video, TV and other Internet goodies available. The carriers said 4mbps is just enough, thanks. How do we let them get away with that?
When it comes to advertising - will the advertisers let the carriers get away with that too?
So have ads slowed down the Internet? I'd say yes.
- Page load times are seeming to increase and there needs to be greater optimization for ads
- We need to train our brain to work around seeing ads on a page. That slows down our reading/skimming capabilities.
It seems that we are designing more for the advertisers than we are for readers. The irony is that it is the readers who allow publications to demand higher rates for advertisers.
I think its time to move away from advertising as a model and find something new. Do I know what that is? No. However, I invite you to comment on how revenue could be generated from something else besides ads.