Unraveling Obfuscation

ob fus cate – 1. to confuse, bewilder, or stupefy 2. to make obscure or unclear

Oh, My Over-Monetized Eyeballs

Posted by Todd McKinney on January 20, 2007

Jeff Atwood is lamenting a future that is filled with advertising hanging off of every postage stamp sized bit of content we read. I agree with the premise that it’s already uncomfortably close to reality and it is trending worse. At least in some areas.

There are two problems that I have with ads being plastered everywhere. First, and probably most gut-wrenching, is that the stuff is just ugly. In a world where people value aesthetics and good design, much of the advertising on the web is just a visual abomination. If you doubt that the general public is drawn to such lofty concepts as aesthetics and design, witness the financial results of Apple over the past couple of years. Second, an issue as troublesome to advertisers as to its victims, is that most ads are never delivered at an appropriate time in an appropriate context for me to find them interesting, useful or actionable.

The answer, for most advertisers, is to turn up the volume. If you get a very small percentage response to something, just increase the base number. The industry is driven by this simple mathematical concept, which is typically called the response rate. It’s why spammers send so much spam. Even if you and I delete every one that comes through the filters, there’s still some customer somewhere who gets one of these and responds. If there was no response, they wouldn’t keep doing it.

Not being an advertiser, the whole approach just seems very simplistic. The advertisers have adopted the web, but are using an system that was devised for other media. It is based on attracting attention and interrupting people. The forays into technology seem to be about finding a better way to interrupt us. This leads to a sort of arms race situation where advertisers abuse system functionality and then everyone has to work to find ways to turn it off. We have popup blockers because they were being used to steal our attention. Flash is being marginalized as a tool because advertisers see it as an effective way to completely interrupt what I’m doing.

There is a better way. I do buy goods and services. Never from a spammer or a popup ad or a dancing snake, but I make buying decisions all of the time. How? Often based on the recommendations of other people, and often based on research. If someone I know has purchased something and it works out well for them, they are likely to talk about it. If I need to buy something to fill a need I often want to figure out what the options are and make a somewhat informed decision. We are getting there, but there’s a long way to go before our systems are as usable as they should be for helping me make these decisions.

Let’s look at some case studies and see if there’s anything that can be concluded by what has been happening in the world of commerce on the internet.

Ebay is one thing that I would not have expected to work. The basic premise of an online auction is sound enough, but when I talked to people and they were sending cashier’s checks to complete strangers and trusting them to send back the goods, I just winced and shook my head. Surprisingly enough, however, the system mostly functions correctly. The secret sauce is the feedback mechanism, as you can’t sell anything effectively if you have a bad reputation.

Google ads have been a smashing success. Born of the “don’t be evil” philosophy, and enhanced with context information, there’s at least some hope that the ad might be on-topic and that it won’t be spinning and flashing and interrupting what I’m trying to do. The ads are popular with advertisers because they work, and they work because they’re closer to being relevant than most things. They work for me because they don’t get in my way. Because of the respect that they show me by not trying to constantly interrupt what I’m doing, there’s some goodwill that has been built up and I don’t feel like I’m causing problems by supporting bad behavior if I click on one of them.

Bloggers are getting a lot of attention from advertisers. Advertisers are shipping free cellphones, new laptops, and who knows what else in the hopes that a good recommendation will come from someone who is trusted and influences lots of people. In some ways this is an extension of the recommendation from a friend model, because readers end up feeling like they understand where a writer is coming from after they have read a lot, or even interacted with the writer.

Amazon has a recommendation engine that generates a lot of revenue. By matching up what you’re looking at with the buying behavior that they have collected, they can generate relevant ideas and offer things for sale. There’s also a fairly active review system that allows you to see not just what people bought, but what they thought of the products.

AttentionTrust is working on a way to gather up data about your activities in the hope that you will be able to use this data to help advertisers find you. Google works in IE, so they are probably way ahead in the data gathering department. I think AttentionTrust has hit upon one of the more important ideas in play here, which is personalization and more specifically personalized ownership of clickstream data. I really hope this idea gets traction, but I can’t exactly see how they’re going to pull it off.

It is still way too difficult to research anything. Doing a web search gives you a flood of stuff that you have to sort through and decide whether it has anything to do with what you’re wanting to know, and at the end of it I never seem to feel like I’ve gotten a comprehensive look at the topic. Wikis and tagging (e.g. del.icio.us) both help on these fronts, but there is a lot of knowledge that is either not being captured or is way too difficult to find.

To wrap up what seems a bit like rambling at this point, I can see an alternate future that is not as dismal as the one painted in Idiocracy. The internet as a platform has tremendous potential for systems to be built that help people in ways that can’t be done in other mediums. Advertisers are not likely to come up with the systems, but you can bet they’ll start using them if they prove to be effective. There is a tremendous opportunity for innovation. The existing tools all seem a bit crude. If history is any indicator, the approachs that will succeed will be open to everyone and focused first on helping people succeed, not on monetizing their eyeballs.


One Response to “Oh, My Over-Monetized Eyeballs”

  1. Some great points here – I also think there is a bit of dot.com thinking going on and Over monetized eyeballs is a neat way of expressing it.

    I’ve written something on it and would be interested in your feedback, see http://justindavies.wordpress.com/2007/03/12/what-is-that-a-dot-com-smell-in-the-air-its-all-about-eyeballs-again/

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