Ad Tech Is Completely Broken

Melody Kramer of Poynter interviewed Salon developer Aram Zucker-Scharff about his experiences dealing with advertising on the web. In short, it’s a mess. There’s a lot that I want to quote from the interview, but this one really shows the bullshit prevalent in the industry:

I have a story about this actually, from working at a previous employer. I prefer to sit in on sales calls for contracts with ad tech because of this very problem. And we had a problem with a major advertiser. The advertiser had run their ad through an agency and the agency was telling them that the ad had 10 percent viewability. […]

So, the agency called us. And we talked to them and said they we could measure viewability on our own (which we could) and that wasn’t making any sense. So they put us on the phone with a major ad tech company that was measuring viewability for them. […]

Finally we are connected with the ad tech company and they have sent an engineer who is talking technical stuff at high speed with, in my opinion, the clear intent to confuse the people who are usually in this type of meeting — all sales people with little expertise in tech.

The thing is, I’m in the room and I’m just listening until he gets to the point which is ‘we don’t track Webkit browsers.’

At this time Webkit is the browser rendering engine for Chrome, Safari and a number of other smaller browsers.

This is a major ad tech company and they just said that they’re not tracking 70 percent of our traffic, but reporting it to the advertiser as if they were.

There’s a lot that publishers should learn from in this interview, but there’s also so much that ad tech companies need to deal with. They don’t screen ads, they allow them to run arbitrary code on websites, and they track far too much information.

Publishers are getting hammered from all sides on this. Readers don’t want to pay for individual subscriptions because they get news in small drips from multiple sources. Advertising on the web has become inherently less valuable than for any other medium, for some reason, so it’s difficult for publishers to financially justify employing a staff to do direct ad sales, particularly when it’s so much easier for a company to buy ad space on a network. There’s justification for this attitude, especially since two networks, AdSense and DoubleClick, continue to dominate the online advertising market — if a company buys advertising on both networks, they instantly have significant reach across the web.

So publishers do what they can: they put half a dozen ad spots on each page, assuming that their ad tech partners have vetted what will appear there. And then everything goes to hell because each of those ad spots drops its own cookies, spawns its own JavaScript, and generally behaves as the most obnoxious citizen of the web.

There are lots of failures of assumption here: ad tech companies assume that those buying ad space with them are not complete assholes, performing only a cursory check on — what I assume is — a small sample of the ad buys they receive. They then market their network as safe to publishers1 who simply want to stem their dwindling revenue. And then they have to put up with abysmal ad code (be careful when opening that link; it’s a lightweight page with necessarily non-lightweight copies of bad code on it).

Users hate these ads. For non-tech-savvy readers, they’re a nuisance — they don’t understand why their computer has come to a crawl just because they opened some article from their local news site, for instance. Savvier users have resorted to blocking ads, to the detriment of publications’ revenue.

In an ideal world, publications would sell their own ad space — that’s what the Economist does, for example. But that’s unlikely to happen, for various reasons, so the next best thing is for ad networks to do a better job policing their inventory.

Update: I’ve been hearing that publishers aren’t pushing back very hard against bad ad practices. Whether it’s due to technological ignorance, a lack of care, in a sense, or fear, they simply aren’t giving the ad industry any reason to improve. As with anyone, ad tech is in it for their own gain, but publishers need to fight for their say in this. They ought to demand greater standards. What I’m hearing is that they simply don’t.

  1. DoubleClick says that publishers can “[trust] performance with best-in-class malware and fraud protection”, for instance. ↥︎