Looking Back On Ads

June 14th, 2023
ads, tech
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Talking about ads online I would often get a response that as someone working in ads I was bound to support my employment. I'm now a year out from working in ads and very unlikely to return to the industry: with the economic bias removed but still knowing the industry reasonably well, what do I think of it all now?

My overall views haven't changed very much. I still think the only serious options are paywalls ("pay with your money") and ads ("pay with your attention"), and in the case of the web the value of moving fluidly from site to site pushes strongly for ads. And for sites that are supported by ads it's worth working to make them, to the extent possible, not-bad for visitors and lucrative for the site.

Sometimes technical work can improve ads on the web on both axes simultaneously. The introduction of intersection observer and ping both took something ads really wanted (logging which ads were within the user's viewport or that an ad had been clicked on) and was already possible (with the scroll event or a redirect) and made the implementation much more efficient. These were already so valuable for ads that ~all ads did them, so increasing efficiency didn't increase how often the tracking happened, it just made the web a bit more responsive. I interpret Chrome's Privacy Sandbox work as another attempt in this direction, trying to retain the economic effects of adtech being able to track users from site to site (predicting which ads users will best respond to, detecting abuse, etc) while dramatically improving the privacy situation.

In other cases, though, there's really just a fight over whether ads should be more or less intrusive, numerous, etc. Users want to see the stuff they came to the site for, publishers want to make more money. This is held somewhat in check by how if a publisher makes their site too unpleasant users will leave (or install adblockers) but only a bit: if I have a few tasteful text-only static ads for relevant things that only goes so far if other sites have flashing hovering noisy moving ads. There's a commons problem where each annoying site makes things worse for all the sites.

Ideally users could credibly say "if you make your site too unpleasant we're not going to visit", as some sort of collective, and hold publishers to a tight standard. Google actually does a bit of this, through Ad Experience Reviews. The idea is there's the Better Ads Standard for what counts as a decent experience, and if I make a site that's more annoying than allowed Chrome will block my ads when you visit my site. Another attempt here is AdBlock Plus' Acceptable Ads Program, where they'll allow ads through if they meet the criteria and you pay their fees, though I'm not keen on the non-transparent way the fees are determined.

One place, close to my former work, where my views have changed, though, is that I think it would be better if Google's display ads business (putting ads on non-Google websites) weren't part of Google. In its role as a search engine and browser manufacturer Google is in a strong position to advocate for what's best for their users, including what leads to a thriving web ecosystem. But because they also operate an adtech business, any serious efforts in this direction (something stronger than the Better Ads Standard or a simpler and faster version of Privacy Sandbox that's better for users but makes less money for sites) raises massive competition questions. Are they really doing it because they care about users, or is it a ploy to advantage their own adtech? When I worked in this area my experience was that me and my coworkers were doing things for the right reasons and were very attentive to potential competitive impact, but (a) this slowed everything down enormously and (b) isn't something visible or verifiable externally.

On the other hand, because it's tied to the rest of Google's business, the display ads portion has a lot more reputational pressure than it would if it were spun off. For example, they publicly committed not use fingerprinting as a replacement for third-party cookies and I doubt they would have done this if they were independent. I think this effect is the smaller one, though, and on balance I'd be happy to see it spun out. I don't know if the current anti-trust efforts will be successful, and I don't know if under current law Google should be broken up along these lines, but I do think the outcomes for users would be better if it was.

(I don't think this is an area I thought much about or addressed publicly either way while I worked in Google ads—and if I did I expect I would have had an awkward conversation with a lawyer—but my private view was in favor of it staying one company. I think I was too close to the implementation, and so was overly influenced by how much of a pain it would be to manage the spin out from a technical perspective.)

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