I am a very vocal opponent of the “Google AdSense as business model” theory. In short, this is when someone has an idea for a website and determines that the best/only way to make money is to slap ads on it. Sure, they may find an ad network that pays well or whatever, but in the end, it’s all the same. Littering a website with ads isn’t likely to make you any richer then putting a tip-jar on the homepage and asking for donations. I’ve covered the reasons why before.

That said, it’s important that my position be clear. I think advertisements serve an invaluable role both online and offline. I actually work in marketing and advertising, so I have seen the effectiveness of it from both sides and can personally confirm the adage (pardon the pun) that “Advertising works!”

So, what’s the big deal? Simple. Advertising is good when it serves the viewer’s interest and it’s bad when it doesn’t. The vast majority of internet advertising, particularly AdSense and similar code, is bad advertising. The knee-jerk reaction would be to say, “Well, Google is worth a zillion dollars so their advertising can’t be bad, you doofus.” My response is one from the basketball court: just because a shot goes through the net doesn’t mean it was a good one to take. Sometimes a great result doesn’t justify a bad action.

Good advertising serves the viewer’s interest all of the time. Pepsi advertisements during NBA games on TV suggest to me what beverage I might want to try when I need something citrus-y but not too sweet. Movie advertisements let me know what’s going to be at the theaters in the next few weeks so I don’t miss a film I’ve been wanting to see. Thursday newspapers (which feature the highest ad-rates each week) let me know what car dealerships are having sales if I am wanting to go buy a car Saturday morning. Good advertising informs the audience of something that may be of benefit to them. Good advertising communicates a message of value in a way that entertains, even if only for a second. Good advertising does not have to be unobtrusive; getting hit over the head with a message when we don’t want to is an important part of helping you remember the message when you do need it. (This is what we call “branding.”)

Bad advertising is the opposite of those things. Bad advertising does not inform you. Bad advertising offers nothing of substance. Bad advertising tries to hide in plain site. Bad advertising brands products and services you will either never need or never choose based on an ad campaign (e.g. finding a good heart surgeon, wherein recommendations from trusted friends and your family doctor would go a lot further then a radio ad).

Online advertising systems like Google’s Adsense, which I’m citing because it is the most well known, suffer greatly from all of the things that make bad advertising “bad.”  Consider:

  • Adsense hides in plain site. Sitting on the side of the page, in text similar to that of the rest of the page, essentially whispering, “don’t mind us…we’re not getting in the way over here…but it wouldn’t hurt you to give us a click every once in a while, would it?”
  • Adsense text is painfully boring. The Adsense software doesn’t allow for the use of words like “Best” or exclamation points. By flattening everyone’s message, they’ve flattened the effectiveness of the ad unit. There is basically NOTHING that can be communicated in 3 lines of text. No substance in message, no enthusiasm in delivery and presentation. So the user is left clicking thru the ad to get any real and useful information. Of course this is what Google is hoping for, but it makes the advertising itself very poor. Imagine if the next ad for a car sale you heard on the radio was, “We sell cars….we are located in your city 2 blocks from your house…visit us for more information.”
  • Adsense is not targeted very well. At all. To be fair to the folks at Google, I’m sure they have an army working on this every day, trying to find a way to personalize and target their ads so well that exactly when you need something, that’s what you’ll see. But if I send an email from my Gmail account to my wife talking about how good the rum-cake was at last night’s dinner, that doesn’t mean to put advertisements for rum-cake recipes below the body of her response.
  • Adsense advertises products you will never use or will not choose based on an ad campaign. See the above rum-cake story.

As a result of the failings listed above that are in no way limited to Google, online advertising has become a disaster 95% of the time. Even worse is that people who don’t know any better think that placing ads on their website is a harmless and possibly beneficial idea. There is a future in advertising online, but for the love of Pete, please quit supporting the models that are “bad” advertising.

And since I don’t like when people complain but offer no real solution, here are some tips for saving online advertising and how to integrate it in to your site/product without becoming part of the current problem.

  • Don’t be shy. The best use of advertising online right now in my view is when I go to Desktop Tower Defense and have to endure a 5-10 second ad while the game loads. Simple. We have an implicit agreement – I want to play the game, they want to advertise to me while they get it ready. They don’t have little text ads surrounding the game in hopes that I click on them. They show me the ad when I show up to play and that’s it. With the proper team behind it, they could be selling good quality adspace to tons of companies in a way that suits the customer. Quit being so coy about the fact you have advertising. Put it where I’ll see it, then let’s go on with our lives in a mutually beneficial way.
  • Don’t be boring. I’m not talking about strobe lights and disco balls. But advertising as content is at its best when it is entertaining or thought provoking. The caveman ads for Geico…the Budweiser frogs…so on and so forth. Advertising is a medium of design and art. It doesn’t have to be a banal necessity of entertainment, but rather can be part of entertainment itself.
  • Be direct. If you want me to buy a Mercedes, show me a Mercedes. If you want me to book a trip to Cancun, show me some video of the beaches there. James Joyce couldn’t describe the Eiffel Tower in 3 lines of Adsense text so it’s a pretty safe bet the folks at “Bob’s Travle Agency for Trips to France” won’t be able to either.

Advertising online doesn’t need to be thought of as a bad thing relegated to the outside column. I don’t think the internet is a “place” where ads should be plastered because that sort of thing is a terrible idea and will have terrible results. But advertising is a form of design, a form of art, a form of entertainment, humor, drama, and intensity when it is done well. When advertising is done well, it has a place on television, a place in magazines, a place on the radio, and will eventually have a place on the internet. We just aren’t there yet.

One Response

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