As many of you are probably aware, the revenue provided from online advertising is on a significant downturn, one that is unlikely to see a rebound. Across the board websites are having a harder and harder time making ends meet on advertising alone. This should hardly be a surprise to anyone given the continuing arms race that exists between online advertising agencies and the consumers they try to victimize and the websites that have helped advertisers do it by accepting their money.

That may sound fairly harsh, but lets step back and take a look at the situation as it has evolved. Originally the intent of advertising was to provide information about your products to consumers in the hope that this information would promote the sale of your products. Dressing up the presentation of the product generally produced better results, but it didn’t take long for advertisers to start outright lying about their products.

This naturally made a lot of people angry, which is understandable because nobody likes to find out that the product that they’ve been sold is really snake oil. Since companies could no longer be trusted to truthfully represent their products, various consumer protection agencies were formed to lay out and enforce the rules by which advertisers needed to operate. Specifically, advertisers can’t outright lie and misrepresent products to consumers. This leads to the issue that most advertisers utilize subjective measures and slogans to promote products, but that’s still better than making blatantly false claims about what the product does.

The issue is, these agencies haven’t really updated to the times and they aren’t a cohesive international organization. They have almost no power to control advertising on the internet, especially advertising that has origins in countries that don’t have consumer protection programs.

So, the online advertising arms race started with spam email. Internet service providers would sell their email lists to advertising firms who would then send advertisements to those email addresses. This was fairly successful at first, since a lot of this advertising was legitimate, though people were understandably upset when they discovered their email was for sale. However, as acquiring email addresses became easier and cheaper, this form of advertising quickly got taken over by snake oil peddlers. Now, today, spam email is equivalent to standing on the street corner with a megaphone shouting that your card game is awesome and totally honest! Not terribly effective, and largely populated by people who are only interested in doing whatever it takes to scam you out of 20 bucks. As such, just about all email services and programs keep up-to-date spam filters to spare you from most of this crap. Thus, email advertising has defeated itself through it lack of integrity. A situation that should sound pretty familiar if you start to look at web advertising as a whole.

So, most advertisers moved on from email. As the web grew, more companies saw the benefit of advertising products on the websites people were visiting, even going so far as to pay search engines to move their sites to the top of the list when searching. Just like email, this started in a benign way. A picture or blurb on the side bar of a website introducing a sale or new product. Indeed, this kind of advertising is still out there and pretty common. But then the integrity of the advertising companies started to slide. Pop-ups began to crop up everywhere. Why not just advertise on a website if you can have a window pop into focus featuring your product, right? Well, people hate having their browser hijacked just to pander something to them, so it wasn’t long until the first pop-up blockers started showing up. Now, blockers are packaged with just about every browser and users enjoy a mostly pop-up free browsing experience.

Defeated there, they needed new ways to capture attention, which leads us to where we are now. Ads scroll across the screen, plop themselves down on-top of content, worm their way into posts as clickable words, use loud and memory intensive flash, and many other gimmicks to get attention. And now, as advertising has gotten cheaper, most of the advertisements that use these tricks are once again pandering their snake oil. What’s worse, is now even legitimate companies are mining information in sacrosanct ways to try to target advertisements to your particular taste.

So now, legitimate advertisements get lost in the cacophony of fake weight loss programs and insurance rate scams. And even when an advert is legitimate, you have to wonder if they’ve been collecting your data behind your back just so they could advertise at you. Couple this with how available information is about products, and you have an environment that can’t help but breed contempt for advertising. So, the consumers who are victimized by these ads develop new defenses: ad-blockers. If advertising firms can’t exercise integrity in their ranks, then we take the next step and outright prevent them from getting their advertisements to us in the first place.

The problem is, in the center of this advertising war, sits the websites who are trying to scrape together the funds to keep going. Often these websites are providing free services with their only income source being advertising. Due to the lack of integrity from the advertising side, and the through disenchantment on the consumer side, this source of income is very quickly drying up. These websites are having to come up with new ways to make ends meet. The most common these days is “plus” accounts that provide additional benefits at a monthly cost. There is also an increasing number of these sites that offer a wide range of paraphernalia based on their site. However, these sales make a pittance for most sites, so many are lucky to break even (something that is a complex enough situation as to require it’s own post to discuss). Donation run sites are also becoming more and more common as those who run the websites start to realize that some people are willing to toss a few dollars your way for the work you do. However, as most webcomic artists know, making ends meet this way can be exceedingly difficult unless you’re already well established.

Other sites have advertisement pages that pop up before you’re allowed to view the actual content; which is a good idea if you want people to get annoyed with your website and start going somewhere else. This will likely die out before too much longer as it becomes increasingly bad for business.

It’s just not a good situation all around. And certainly one that’s gone far enough that it can’t go back. It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this, but advertisers should have policed their own ranks at the very start of this thing. Prune out those among you who are trying to scam customers. Join together and throw down against those who use memory intensive Flash ads. Push out those that use audio ads. But instead, these ads were allowed to proliferate and become the norm. So, alienated consumers have taken to battle. We block the ads since advertisers as a global group seem unwilling and unable to practice restraint and integrity.

And the arms race continues. For each method of advertising that shows up and inevitably becomes corrupted and bloated with chaff before being defeated by irritated consumers, another will rise to fill the void. One must wonder what the next vector of product presentation will be.

I, for one, block ads. I am not ashamed of it, I am not apologetic for it, nor am I likely to stop. Advertisers brought me to this point, and I have answered their abuse of my time and system resources by blocking them* as a group, both the best of them and the worst. The meanest of them, the least of them have decided the treatment of the group entire, and it’s brutally fair that they are thus judged as a whole. And while the websites that need this revenue are now sadly denied it, such sites must contemplate their own culpability in the situation as well, as indeed they are not free from their fair share of blame in this. When you allow these groups to sponsor you, you are, perhaps unwittingly, sanctioning their actions by accepting their money. When the actions stretch to be beyond what is tolerable, it is natural that the downturn affects both the advertiser and those who sanctioned them.

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?

*The only advertisements that still work are the ones where they partner directly with a website I’m visiting, since it appears as site content rather than an external advertisment. I’m 100% in support of this kind of advertising because it involves the direct approval and support from the site administrator, which generally means the advertisement is both legitimate and moderate in presentation. It’s unfortunate that this makes more work for site administrators, but really without this intervention a site might unwittingly support the scamming of their customers. Like Weather.com’s notoriously loose advertisement policy.

There are also a small few websites I do allow advertisements on because they have, through which advertisers they allow, shown that they are committed to allowing only legitimate, pertinent, moderate advertising on their websites; most of them blogs and webcomics. My hat is off to websites who take this stance, and I’m fully in favor of allowing such websites the freedom to advertise to me. For instance, I allow Penny-Arcade to present me with advertisements because the adverts they sponsor are almost always static, unobtrusive banners that advertise products that are pertinent to the audience of Penny-Arcade (that is, geeks and gamers). Indeed I’ve actually found a few things through their advertising that I actually didn’t know about and ended up purchasing. Everyone wins in that scenario.

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