I probably shouldn’t write this because everyone knows online advertising is an all-invasive beast growing rapidly into every corner of the web and it’s only going to get bigger and more annoying. Hell, I’ve even put an advert on the side of this page (woohoo, here comes 60p a month) and in fact it’s these kind of Google ads that I really don’t get. If we’re going to have to have them pervading our web experiences (and we are) they might as well be better.
Right now they broadly split into two camps: the irrelevant and the pointless.
Usually: I’ve just arrived at a big news site, so of course here’s a massive advert of the latest mid-range sports saloon. I certainly can’t afford one so that’s easy to ignore. Or: I’m on a film magazine site so here’s the biggest new blockbuster filling the background. I might go and see that at some point. These ads are targeted around the demographics of the website’s audience. It’s the age-old model of the newspaper/magazine industry and it’s probably about as effective as a print advert.
There’s obviously the bonus of a link to the official website of the product but I’m not going to visit that, I’m going to judge whether to buy/consume something based on independent reviews and peer feedback. Maybe some people are still clicking through but they’re going to be fewer and further between as this digital generation ages. So these ads are pretty much irrelevant relics.
These are the ads that I really want to challenge. These are the future and they’re certainly going to get better but right now they defeat themselves. How they work is this: you visit a website and then later on when browsing other ad-supported sites, you get shown an advert for that website. That’s pretty much it. There is the subtlety that if you’re lucky sometimes you’ll be shown a set of search results for products you’ve looked at. All done of the cookies created by your web-browsing behaviour.
If you’re just being shown an advert for the website you’ve been to that’s most likely a complete waste because you certainly know that website exists, as you’ve just been there. I quite regularly get adverts for my energy company, which makes literally no sense to me. Not only do I know the company already exists but surely I’m the last person they want to see that advert, that advertising dollar is better spent on everyone but me. If they’re tracking your website visit via a cookie, going forward it might be an idea to provide a different cookie if you reach a login url.
If you’re being shown search results from the site you just visited that’s just as pointless. Several times I’ve been served up adverts featuring products I just bought. Hey you’re right I am interested in that! But you’re too late. Or perhaps I didn’t buy, in which case I probably don’t want to be reminded of those products I obviously didn’t want. Either way it’s like being showed a trailer for a film you’ve just watched. There is the use case that I didn’t buy but might yet do in the future but is the answer repeatedly show me those things across every website I visit like a harassing salesman? Well, it might work for some.
The thought of browsing the web with cookies tracking you scares some people. But for me it’s a long way to being scary. When you can actually predict what I want to see and click on, that’s scary. It’s also, paradoxically, the only way online ads are going to be truly useful and get impressive click-through rates.