The Banner Hits the Fan

Posted to NewsTrolls 09 September 1998

The internet, we are told, is a hotbed of libertarian thought and economics. It is a wild and woolly frontier in which freedom of enterprise takes precedence and regulation is anathema.

No wonder, then, that almost as soon as the internet escaped the cloisters of academia that commercial interests stepped forward and began to set up shop. In short order we saw the emergence of online botiques and malls, internet gambling, user-pay websites and online games.

And most of all, we saw the emergence of online advertising, the banner ad, as it was called, today the dominant form of revenue generation on the internet.

When banner ads first made their appearance on the net three years ago, the reaction against them was widespread. And negative. They corrupt the purity of the internet, said some. They hog bandwidth and slow downloads, said others. They are garish and ugly, said others still.

And all of these comments were true, yet futile. There was money to be made from popular sites, and so soon the ads appeared everywhere: on search engines, on ezines, even on personal pages. The banner ad was king, and free enterprise ruled: if you didn't like them, surf somewhere else. It wasn't like there was a shortage of websites.

And all was well with internet advertising until a company called WRQ released a product called @Guard, a product which blocks banner ads, restricts cookies, and bans web access by URL, IP, time or even port.

According to WRQ execs, the product satisfies a demand:

"We went out to our customers and asked what were the biggest problems they face on the Internet," said Craig Schmidt, director of network access management at WRQ. "They said, No. 1, that [Internet access] is too slow. No. 2, they were concerned about privacy issues, such as cookies. And No. 3, companies are worried about security inside the firewall." (CMPNet's Tim Wilson, in WRQ's @Guard Improves PC Web Performance, Privacy)

With that, the banner, so to speak, hit the fan. Reaction in the online site development community was immediate. Brian Platz, of A List Apart, wrote in issue 1.83:

Me personally, I am content with the banner ad. It is non-obtrusive and does on occasion bring me in touch with a product/service I am interested in. I'd rather stick with it than put up the the new ad delivery methods that would have to be developed. We have already seen such new methods from companies like Geocities (JS pop-ups). It actually makes me appreciate the banner ad that much more. A small price to pay for free content.

Imagine just for a minute, if instead of trying to block the banner ad, we all made an effort to click on just one ad per day. Imagine the advertising revenue pouring into the 'net then. It would spawn new free services for all to use.. maybe even an R&D budget to make a search engine that actually found what I was looking for. And since we all make a living on the 'net, I am certain we would all benefit greatly.

All from a little banner ad.

But I suppose it is just human nature, we never know how good we have it until it is taken away.

But - I wondered - who runs the internet, anyways? Do we have to subscribe to the user-pay model, whether it be by advertisements or subscriptions? The net, originally conceived, was intended for the fair and free exchange of information. Have we now reached an era where one model of commerce must dominate? I thought not, and posted back to A List Apart:

I find it fascinating that Brian Platz chooses to call his article about banner-blockers "Messin' with the 'net". Banner advertisements are, after all, a relatively new arrival on the internet, and were themselves depicted as "Messin with the 'net" when they first made their appearance.

For myself, I cheer the arrival of this technology (assuming it works, of course). It reinforces the idea that the end user is in control of what is downloaded and displayed on their computer, not the web site host. For after all, the end user is paying a significant part of the cost of that transaction through his or her investment in computer hardware and ISP fees.

Platz opines,

I happened across an article the other day that shakes the very foundation of a large portion of the 'net. It is about advertising, but it isn't. It drives a bit deeper and plays Russian roulette with most fundamental and successful business model on the Internet today.

I have to question this assumption. I do not agree that banner ads are the most fundamental business model on the internet today. Many companies - my own included - do not maintain web sites for the purpose of obtaining revenues through banner ads. They do it to provide information and support for their products and services. Were we to take away the sites supported by banner ads, nothing essential to the internet would be lost. Were we to take away sites *not* supported by banner ads, the heart and soul of the internet would have been deleted.

Platz continues,

I wonder how much money they will really be saving when Yahoo, Excite, InfoSeek, etc., start charging everyone a nickel per search. Or when the newspapers and other news publications charge a monthly subscription fee. Or when the company's web developers need to pay $100/yr each for access to webreference.com and the other related sites.

Platz's assumption is that the model for web commerce is ultimately a user-pay system. I challenge that assumption.

It was not so long ago that Yahoo was free and not supported with ads. Platz makes the assumption here that banner ads are essential for the provision of online content. I disagree. Banner ads are essential only if you are trying to make money directly from the site itself. But it is not clear that the best internet business model is to make money from the site. Sites which offer product information and support (for, say, Hewlett-Packard, or whomever) do not make money in and of themselves, but add value to the products and services sold by that company. Moreover, there exist even today many free reference sites.

Moreover, internet access providers and similar companies have a vested interest in making sure that there is content on the internet, banner ads or not. Just as AOL filled its service with resources, chat and conference areas to attract new members in its pre-internet days, so also today's ISP have an interest in providing items of interest for their customers. In Canada, Sympatico, a national online service, has spent a lot creating user areas and forums, for example.

As for cookie-blockers and javascript disablers: browsers have had both for some time without commerce on the internet coming to an end. I think banner blockers would fit into the same category.

Platz continues,

Me personally, I am content with the banner ad. It is non-obtrusive and does on occasion bring me in touch with a product/service I am interested in. I'd rather stick with it than put up the the new ad delivery methods that would have to be developed. We have already seen such new methods from companies like Geocities (JS pop-ups). It actually makes me appreciate the banner ad that much more. A small price to pay for free content.

First of all, banner ads are not non-obtrusive. Take it from one who still surfs with 28.8 at home. Banner ads are frequently the item which bogs page downloads. There's is nothing so obtrusive as downloading a 40 K animated banner for 1K of text. Yes, the Geocities popups are also annoying. They are a greater evil still. But the solution to popups isn't banner ads. The solution to popups is a more imaginative approach to internet commerce.

Platz concludes,

Imagine just for a minute, if instead of trying to block the banner ad, we all made an effort to click on just one ad per day. Imagine the advertising revenue pouring into the 'net then. It would spawn new free services for all to use.. maybe even an R&D budget to make a search engine that actually found what I was looking for. And since we all make a living on the 'net, I am certain we would all benefit greatly.

Why would I click on a banner ad? Often, the product advertised has nothing to do with what I'm looking for. And why would I reward a company which is increasing my download time and adding to my costs? I am also less confident of the 'trickle-down' theory than Platz. In my experience, providing greater income to corporations results in greater corporate profits, not free services.

I would much rather, as an internet user and as a content developer, express my displeasure with those who use banner ads by *not* clicking on their ads and *not* purchasing their services. Instead, I prefer - as I am doing here - to goad and nudge them toward more enlightened forms of commerce. Just as the goods and traffic which flow over a highway system will always be worth more than the billboards which blight urban and rural landscapes, so also the information and traffic which flows over the internet is itself worth much more that the banner ads which impede its progress.

What we have here is a case where free enterprise comes up squarely against free enterprise. Or, to put it another way: the very people who corrupted the internet now find themselves corrupted by the very same market forces. It seems odd and insidious to hear them now cry foul.


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