The Internet is facing an identity crisis.
Conceived as a free way to share information, it has slowly yielded to the pressures and necessities of the economy, becoming a medium through which goods and services are not only exchanged but also heavily marketed—rammed down our throats, some might say, not by the traditional means of flashy pictures or catchy jingles. Today’s Internet uses more subtle means: artificially inflated search rankings and context-sensitive advertising chief among them.
It seems you can’t visit a website anymore without being bombarded, often discreetly but sometimes very obtrusively, by a plethora of ads that peddle everything from online diplomas to spiritual enlightenment. Whatever happened to those halcyon days circa 1998, when one could browse in relative peace—before corporate types grew wise to the exploding electronic fad and sent in the hounds?
Of course, it was just a matter of time.
The commercialized, packaged, spun, styled and advert-supported Web is thus upon us; it’s all about pulling in eyeballs, counting click-throughs and maxing out conversion rates. What remains a question, however, is whether the Internet is or will ever be the advertising holy grail so many marketeers want it to be?
Take, for instance, the context-sensitive Google-style ads. They appear alongside everything from search results to e-mails to this website—tailored to match whatever content you’re being presented, which would seem to increase their effectiveness. These often turn out to be pitches of questionable authenticity, the kind that purport to quickly make you rich, find you a soul mate or refinance your mortgage on the spot. A quick Google of “God” reveals, through a sponsored link, that he can be found on eBay. Go figure.
While it certainly would be disingenuous to paint all sites that participate in Google’s AdSense program with the same cynical brush, one can’t help but detect a distinct as-seen-on-TV odour emanating from them in general. As a result, many of us have learned to ignore them completely, solving the problem in practice.
The larger advertising revenue model pushed by Google encourages anyone with a busy website to dish up its AdSense ads, thus allowing both site owner and Google to earn a cut from the advertiser. This has led to a modern-day gold rush: industrious webmasters who are able to draw a crowd can instantly make a buck off the traffic.
But what gold rush would be complete without the requisite bad guys, who seek more nefarious ways to ride the wave? Where there was once whiskey-swilling card sharks robbing honest prospectors blind, today there are sploggers that automatically generate garbage weblogs which draw in unsuspecting readers and pocket the advertising revenue generated. This results in a Web—or at least a blogosphere— with washed-out content, diluted by bots whose masters seek the mighty dollar in spite of the toll on our already-shaky collective trust in online content production.
From the advertisers’ perspective, a different kind of evil bot seeks to hamper the free-for-all with something that has become known as “click fraud.” This disruption involves web-crawling software robots, posing as real human beings, spuriously clicking on advertising links they come across.
In this way, the perps can force their competitors to wastefully spend advertising dollars; they can also generate revenue for themselves on their own AdSense-supported websites. MSNBC recently reported that auditing firms estimate 10 to 20 percent of all clicks on ads are done fraudulently in this manner.
Obviously, this illegal practice is not in anyone's best interest—it erodes the trust in the online relationship between retailer and consumer. Consider how many advertisers would tolerate a print magazine whose circulation was artificially inflated with phony readers?
And sadly for Internet marketeers, this is only the beginning of the dark clouds hovering ominously above their world.
The Google-pioneered advertising model is constantly being subverted by the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry, a discipline that owes its parasitic existence to search engines’ page-ranking algorithms. By exploiting perceived weaknesses in the ranking algorithms’ objectivity, SEO consultants (through various legitimate and not-so-legitimate means) seek ways to propel clients’ sites up to the magic top ten sites for a given search term—a first page spot almost always guaranteeing real competitive advantage.
One lowbrow SEO technique is link spamming: junk websites (such as this one) are created to increase backlinks toward a particular company or site, in order to increase its page rank. While we like to think high-ranked sites have achieved their position through genuine popularity or relevance, this is not the case. Sure Yahoo!, Google et al. can intermittently tweak algorithmic dials behind the scenes to throw the SEO dogs off the scent, but these hounds are typically quick to adapt to such changes and the resulting rank reshufflings can harm legitimate site owners who have worked hard to create respected, quality content and attain the positioning they deserve.
A wider trend, and the one of most concern for the industry, is the healthy skepticism of Internet users. The widespread popularity of pop-up blocking toolbars suggests people will generally do whatever is in their power to thwart advertisers. Further, to the dismay of e-marketers everywhere, the average Web surfer is rarely willing to compromise his or her online privacy. One gets the impression that companies—popular search engines included—would love to find out more about our browsing and purchasing habits. A recent Jupiter Research study covered in the Globe and Mail, pegs the proportion of Internet users who regularly delete cookies from their system at nearly 40 percent. This has left e-marketers everywhere scratching their heads and promising a massive education campaign to “cajole consumers into accepting cookies.” Some people just don’t get it.
The Internet, from the beginning, has been a disruptive medium. Its community has consistently sought ways to eschew the old corporate guard (peer-to-peer file sharing, for instance) and their money-making practices, which are viewed as unfair, annoying and invasive. Meritocracy is the watchword of the open-source community: let the best programs, people and products win. This is what hackers will fight to protect, always. Advertising by its very nature is at odds with the fundamental tenets upheld by the majority of those who use and control the evolution of the Web. This is why the practice is doomed, at least in most of its present incarnations—the early signs of its decline already evident.
Incredibly, Google has thus far relied almost exclusively on AdSense to generate revenue and thus prove to the business community that the Internet is sufficiently grown up that it can be used as a bona fide marketing tool. If its recent earnings reports are any indication, it is certainly succeeding in this regard, and investors, obligingly, continue to push up GOOG stock betting that its coffers will continue to swell. Surely though, the growth of the industry is bound to slow as the law of diminishing returns sets in and there are only so many advertising dollars to go around.
As the Internet advertising engine sputters through disruption, manipulation and collective nose-thumbing, Google and the rest of the online business world would be well served to think long and hard about the place of the mighty arm of capitalism amid the once-and-ever free Inter-Network.
Perhaps it is time for marketeers to “step outside the box” (as they might say) and accept that push-advertising may very well be incongruent with the new online reality. Moreover, if the objectivity of search rankings continues to be undermined, the fickle, inventive online community will quickly and mercilessly take its eyeballs elsewhere.
In other words, short of a complete overhaul in their approach, Internet marketers should probably start looking elsewhere for their cherished grail.
Mathieu Balez is a writer and consultant who has developed web software in Silicon Valley, but currently calls Montreal home. He remembers when Netscape 1.1 was the hottest thing around.